New school board president a veteran of education wars | January 6, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 6, 2012

New school board president a veteran of education wars

Former probation officer, lawyer, got hooked on schools as a Jordan parent

by Chris Kenrick

Taking the gavel for the second time, new Palo Alto Board of Education President Camille Townsend says she spends a lot of time "poring over research" to grasp the issues.

"The school district is so complicated — from K-12 curriculum to construction to architecture to bond management to bond sales to athletics, including equipment, fields, coaching staff — and you have to get a feel for the issues so you can give direction.

"It's not OK to say, 'I don't know construction, so I want to let someone else deal with that.' You can't do that," she recently told the Weekly.

First elected in 2003, Townsend is a veteran of school controversies that have included creation of the district's five-year-old Mandarin Immersion program — she was a consistent supporter — and the 'math wars' that periodically surface over curriculum.

She was in the minority on a controversial 3-2 vote in 2009 to adopt the K-5 mathematics textbook "Everyday Mathematics." And most recently, she was in the minority on the contentious 3-2 vote last May to revamp the 2012-13 and 2013-14 academic calendars to begin the school year earlier in August so as to end the first semester before the December holidays.

"Every year there are always one or two issues that capture the community's attention," she said. "It's just a matter of framing them so you can move forward and everybody learns. I don't want there to be misplaced anger. We do our best work when we're done being angry, and we get into the details of things, and that's what we're doing."

About a recent angry flare-up over math and science laning at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools, Townsend said, the facts need to be clarified before the board can act.

In December, a coalition of students and parents challenged the board to ensure the district's two high schools offer a basic, non-honors track in math and science that satisfies entrance requirements for the University of California and California State University.

"I think the staff will go back and look at what we're actually offering," she said. "To the board this is all rumor. We haven't heard directly from anybody. Are we really exceeding the standards or not?

"It's our duty to see whether that's the case because it's our obligation to give kids access to public universities as a matter of public policy.

"But you can't let anger rule the day," she said. "When you have a better understanding about what's actually going on, then there are solutions."

Townsend, who grew up in Wisconsin, has worked as a law-firm receptionist, youth counselor, probation officer, lawyer and professor of business law at Purdue University. Though not actively practicing law, she maintains her membership in the State Bar of California.

She got involved in Palo Alto schools as a newcomer from Indiana, when the older of her two daughters was in sixth grade at Jordan Middle School.

"We couldn't figure out what the math homework was," she said. "Being a diligent parent I saw that there was a math meeting at Jordan so I went to the meeting and found out there was no textbook. There were just these handouts that kids would lose.

"I raised my hand and said, 'What math book are you using?' and I felt all this heat turn toward me. I hadn't realized this was part of a bigger (math wars) issue. That's why I'm still leery of trendy math curriculums."

She served as PTA president at Nixon Elementary School and ran a Palo Alto PTA campaign to blanket state legislators with letters urging preservation of funding for "basic aid" school districts such as Palo Alto.

"It's just my general inclination to think that public education is so important," said Townsend, whose own parents never got beyond the eighth grade. Remembering her childhood in Wisconsin, she said, "My mother was always so happy when the school bus came."

Townsend's second term on the board — along with the first terms of members Melissa Baten Caswell and Barbara Klausner — had been due to expire in 2011.

However, following the resounding 2010 passage of a Palo Alto measure to consolidate City Council elections with even-year county, state and federal balloting as a cost-saving effort, the Board of Education voted to follow suit.

As a consequence, school board elections were moved from November 2011 to November 2012.

The terms of Townsend, Caswell and Klausner expire this year. Those of board Vice-President Dana Tom and member Barb Mitchell expire in 2014.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at


Like this comment
Posted by Can-You-Really-Be-Educated-In-Government-Schools?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2012 at 1:47 pm

> "It's just my general inclination to think that public education
> is so important,"

Interesting .. Townsend seems to be promoting “Public” education, but not “private” education. Wonder if this is because she is more-or-less “owned” by the labor unions, which have latched onto government .. having destroyed the steel industry, the railroad industry and the maritime industry by 1970?

It’s a shame the Weekly hasn’t pushed her on this, and asked directly: “what do you have against private education”?

Townsend has been vocally against some kinds of technology use in the schools in the past. It’s doubtful she will be promoting an increased use of technology in the PAUSD this year.

Townsend has not been a big fan of openness, where decision making at the PAUSD is concerned. This was clear when she approved/promoted the use of money from secret donors for the Mandarin Immersion program. Given how she conducted herself during that contentious time (dismissing everyone who disagreed with her), allowing the public a clear view of what is happening at the Board level is not likely.

Like this comment
Posted by vision
a resident of Southgate
on Jan 9, 2012 at 1:59 pm

She had the vision to promote mandarin program.

Like this comment
Posted by Can-You-Really-Be-Educated-In-Government-Schools?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2012 at 2:17 pm

> She had the vision to promote mandarin program

Actually, this was not her idea .. it was promoted originally by parents here in the district.

She also did not do a very good job explaining to the public the relationship between herself, her husband, and the "institute" that he was associated with at Stanford that had contracts with the Chinese government. Once this very "hazy" relationship became known, many people believed that she should have backed out of any decisions involving Mandarin, particularly since it ultimately involved contacts with the Chinese government directly, and indirectly via the Confusius Institute:

Web Link

Confucius Institutes are non-profit public institutions aligned with the Government of the People's Republic of China that aim to promote Chinese language and culture, support local Chinese teaching internationally, and facilitate cultural exchanges.

Controversies Involving the Confusius Institutes:

In the short time-frame of their rapid expansion the Institutes have been the subject of much controversy. Criticisms of the Institutes have included practical concerns about finance, academic viability, legal issues, and relations with the Chinese partner university, as well as ideological concerns about improper influence over teaching and research, industrial and military espionage, surveillance of Chinese abroad, and undermining Taiwanese influence

Townsend never once admitted that having the Chinese government influencing programs here in the PAUSD, albeit even obliquely, was unacceptable. And how could she say that--since her husband was (presumably) taking money from the Chinese government to increase government business interests here in the US.

Needless to say--taking secret money from donors that might have been the PLA (People's Liberation Army) was not the basis for good public policy. Townsend has never provided any evidence of where she would draw the line--where taking secret money is concerned.

And just how as the Mandarin Immersion program actually changed the PAUSD? Is it now on the map? or is Mandarin Immersion just another pandering to well-heeled special interests?

Like this comment
Posted by vision
a resident of Southgate
on Jan 9, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Why would you care about chinese government?Once someone said, it does not matter as long as the government can make people rich happy and prosperous.So during the last twenty years,the american government made people poor,weak.You should blame the government who made us poor. Why can not we take their money and learn something useful from them, especially they might just want to spread their culture not their politics, it is very likely cuz we manage the education here with the Madarin program, not them.

Like this comment
Posted by Can-You-Really-Be-Educated-In-Government-Schools?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2012 at 2:33 pm

> Why would you care about chinese government

The Chinese government has killed over 65M people over the past 50 years. Anyone who does not know this is clearly poorly educated, or "on board" with this kind of governmental tyranny.

The US is a country built on the idea of limited government--not the kind of massive intrusion .. including mass killing .. that we see in the government created by Mao Tse Tung.

I don't want my children to live in a place where they do not have the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, or the freedom to have more than one child. That's why I am concerned about the Chinese government.

As it were .. we now have the problem of a growing Chinese military threat, and a government with little, or no, conscience. Therefore, it does not seem to be a good idea to "align" local educational goals, or staffing, with anything remotely associated with the Chinese government.

Like this comment
Posted by vision
a resident of Southgate
on Jan 9, 2012 at 2:40 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by vision
a resident of Southgate
on Jan 9, 2012 at 2:42 pm

The more you isolate yourself, the more you lose.

Like this comment
Posted by Where's the direction?
a resident of Walter Hays School
on Jan 9, 2012 at 9:13 pm

"you have to get a feel for the issues so you can give direction"

In her eight years of service in this district, Camille Townsend has never given "direction" to the Board. You cannot be in the minority on contentious votes and say that you have given direction. The minority vote means that you aren't able to persuade your fellow board members well enough to have them vote with you. I am amazed that the Board voted Camille in as Board President, even if it is supposed to be a rotational title. She is the least capable to lead this Board.

Looking forward to the 2012 elections!

Like this comment
Posted by Bill
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 10, 2012 at 7:12 am

Back in 2007, Camille Townsend received only 6,731 votes—about 17% of the 40,000 registered voters in the PAUSD jurisdiction. Clearly, Townsend did not resonate with the voters. To end up having her President of the Board twice, and not have to run for re-election, seems to reinforce the views of many that the PAUSD is a personal play ground for special interests.

It’s pretty clear that Townsend does not speak for the community.

Like this comment
Posted by guest
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 10, 2012 at 7:54 am

A school district for a town of about 60,000 residents is not that complicated, lady.

"Pouring over research to grasp issues," education "wars"? This is over-lawyering.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 10, 2012 at 8:10 am

I am not particularly a Camile fan having disagreed with her on some issues and found her long winded as a board member, but she is willing to take on a position that is not easy and for that I will give her credit.

It is true that last time she was elected she was "lucky" by getting elected by a very small number of votes, in other words, by the skin of her teeth. But last time there were no candidates running and we ended up with a non-election.

Some of the comments here are probably the reason why we didn't get anyone willing to stand in the last election.

Remember, all board members are just residents like us who are willing to do something many of us would consider onerous. They are also taking criticism from many of us who haven't a clue on all the issues. They are also not paid, not professional educators, and their only experience is probably from the PTA.

So unless we want another non election this year, then I suggest we thank our present board members for taking their time and their energy in doing a task that no one was willing to take on.

I sincerely hope we have a group of candidates to choose between this year and I thank anyone reading this who is considering to stand and take on this difficult volunteer task. I may not agree with you on some of your points of view, but I thank you nonetheless for doing something which is going to put you not only in the spotlight but also at the mercy of those who are willing to criticise every aspect of every decision.

Thank you Camile for your time and effort.

Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 11, 2012 at 5:54 pm

I agree with you, guest. This is a misplaced use of the word "war", in more than one place in the article; it's overly dramatic at best, it denigrates the important role of members of the community engaging over things that are important to them at the very least.

Sometimes people engage animatedly and not in the nicest way, but calling that a 'war' is a semantic power play. The implication is that we can't have impassioned discourse in this town because it's equated with the destruction of war. The purpose of the discourse, even when it's not nice enough for the Board's taste, or contradicts someone's pet agenda (and by the way, that's a general slap, not one at Townsend, so please don't make it out to be) - the purpose of the discourse is constructive.

I'm with you also, Resident. The board positions in this town are very important to our community, and not too many people notice to say thank you for the things that are done right. I'm very much not a fan of many of the board's actions, but like you, I appreciate their willingness to serve our community.

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