Guest Opinion: What to look for in a school board candidate | October 5, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - October 5, 2012

Guest Opinion: What to look for in a school board candidate

by Barbara Klausner

PAUSD is exemplary. At every school, students, parents, teachers and staff are deeply engaged in support of student learning and well-being. Overall academic achievement is outstanding. Our superintendent has effectively led the district for five years, assembling a strong team of administrators and partnering with community supporters.

So, who needs a school board? How can a candidate add value?

According to Bylaw 9000 (Role of the Board), the board serves five basic functions for the district: (1) setting its direction; (2) establishing its organizational structure; (3) supporting the superintendent and staff; (4) ensuring accountability for its schools' performance; and (5) providing community leadership and advocacy on behalf of students.

In my view, the first and fourth functions pose the greater challenges and should be the focus of this election. In serving these functions, I believe a board member should have the knowledge, skills and will to: (a) articulate a vision, (b) transform that vision into a set of meaningful, achievable goals, (c) demand accountability in meeting those goals, and (d) promote the diffusion of our successful practices through the district. It is easy to parrot these words but surprisingly difficult to follow through in the face of a robust status quo. Here are just of few of the challenges.

Identifying what works best and scaling that out broadly across the district: There is a widely-held belief among all stakeholders that we should look to best practices within and beyond our district and promote their dissemination. Yet there is also a tradition of bottom-up decision-making and an aversion to top-down decision-making. This is a key leverage point for improvement cited by Bertil Chappuis, the McKinsey consultant who spearheaded the development of our 2008 Strategic Plan.

Mr. Chappuis observed that "Palo Alto has an opportunity given that this is a medium-sized district with lots of talented people who are trying all sorts of interesting, effective teaching approaches, and yet we may be sub-optimized around identifying what works best and scaling that out broadly across the district." He noted the difficulty in "finding the right balance between individual teaching approaches and consistency and developing the Palo Alto program." In other words, where programs or practices work well in the district, the central administration, under the guidance of the school board, should identify them and promote their use more broadly.

There is a healthy but, in Mr. Chappuis' terms, "sub-optimized" tension between bottom-up and top-down decision-making. In my view, a greater degree of centralized direction would better serve our students in certain fundamental areas — meeting the needs of student sub-groups above or below grade level or otherwise in need, promoting student connectedness, managing student workload, aligning content and assessment in similar courses, and teacher/home communication in our digital age, to name a few. So I would look for a candidate who favors a degree of top-down decision-making to facilitate the use of successful practices across the district and understands the significance of "finding the right balance" between autonomy and centralization — one digestible, collaborative and transparent step at a time.

Goal-setting and holding ourselves accountable: not "the cardiac test: Harvard Prof. Roland Fryer has commented that educators, when asked how they know they are effective, answer that "you can feel it in your heart." He calls this "the cardiac test." Fortunately, the board does not use the cardiac test to measure whether district goals have been met, but it has at times struggled to identify what counts. This year, we made great strides in setting Annual Goals with specific, measurable, achievable results.

There is still a temptation, however, to tread lightly when goals are not met. For example, while we have made laudable progress toward meeting our three long-term Strategic Plan K-8 Academic Goals, we have not met any of them. Why have we fallen short? Can our programs be improved? Are our goals unrealistic? This reluctance to hold ourselves fully accountable has the unfortunate effect of preventing a more complete understanding of what did and did not work, which impairs our ability to effectively set new goals. With a new Strategic Plan "refresh" slated for 2013, it is imperative that the incoming board take that last step of evaluating progress under our current Strategic Plan as the first step in creating a new one.

Data-driven decision-making: The board has access to vast amounts of useful data, but we have not yet mastered a process by which to optimize use of those data. The challenge for a board member is to be effective in parsing data to evaluate our district's successes and shortfalls and to guide us in spreading our successes, correcting our shortfalls and establishing new goals. Recently, the board was asked to digest a 45-minute presentation on the three aforementioned Academic Goals involving CST scores. That trove of data has yet to be fully mined for information about program effectiveness and student progress. Last year, the district adopted new high school graduation requirements ("A-G"), and there will be an emerging, urgent need to figure out what data to track in order to monitor our work and student success under this new regime. We need an incoming board that will dig into data, ask probing questions and act on what it learns.

So, how can a candidate add value? S/he can acknowledge the significance of scaling out best practices, effectively use data in decision-making, work to set well-informed goals and demand accountability — selectively, intelligently, strategically, collaboratively and respectfully, of course.

Included in the BoardSource's list of "Twelve Principles of Governance That Power Exceptional Boards" are two of particular relevance: (a) a Culture of Inquiry ("seek more information, question assumptions, challenge conclusions, advocate for solutions based on analysis") and (b) Results-Oriented ("measure progress towards mission; evaluate the performance of major programs and services; gauge efficiency, effectiveness, and impact, while simultaneously assessing the quality of service delivery, integrating benchmarks against peers, and calculating return on investment").

In voting for a candidate, please consider these principles and enjoy your right to participate in democracy.

Barbara Klausner is a member of the Palo Alto Board of Education and can be reached at


Posted by Palo Alto Parent, a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 5, 2012 at 10:36 am

Thank you Barbara for this most thoughtful Guest Opinion. I am sorry that you are leaving the board as based on my observations of you at board meetings you have demonstrated stellar qualities serving the children of our district. Having thought through your suggestions it is clear to me (based on the candidate forum I attended recently and a reading of the websites of all candidates) that Ken Dauber qualifies to fit the bill. I am anxious to see where my school will be moving in the next year or two.......hopefully they will be able to adopt a more effective counseling system at Gunn and will see the value in adopting best practices districtwide. I think Ken is particularly strong on the data-driven decision making and this I view as a key difference between Ken and one or more of the other candidates. Thanks again for helping me crystalize why I want to vote for Ken. I also believe that it is time to get some new blood on the board and that we should think about term limits for candidates. We can impose those limits at the ballot box Camille's long service has been appreciated but I think it would great for some new ideas to come on board.

Posted by Grateful to Klausner, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 5, 2012 at 11:26 am

I was proud to have voted for Ms. Klausner when she stood up to the Superintendent and called out his behavior regarding the counseling issue. It's too bad we couldn't trade her for Camille Townsend in this election. Thanks for your guidance above and your service these past five years, Barbara!

Posted by Garland Now, a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 5, 2012 at 12:05 pm

the whole issue is to deal with the politically heavy duty Stratford Corporation trying to keep garland by all means. Be careful with some new blood coming to the board, ask the questions to everyone on the issue of Elementary schools. The district needs the New Garland Elementary School ASAP. Cubberly has only space for 1 high School; 1 Middle School;1 young Fives, and transition to kinder for needed children that; and Finally 1 Pre-School Family that is already at Greendel-adjacent to Cubberly. and remember that once there is another Elementary school that now rents at Cubberly and will be evicted, so more kids will go to Pre-School Family that will have to be expanded. that is just a tip of the iceberg.

Posted by David Pepperdine, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 5, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Am grateful to Barb Klausner for her service and balance. She has taken a courageous stand on many issues before the Board. Of the current candidates, Mr. Daubner has espoused both data-driven decision making and accountability as his priorities. On these measures, I like Ms. Caswell as well. Let's hope the two of them make it to the Board.

Posted by John Wilkie, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 5, 2012 at 1:41 pm

@David: I usually agree with you and I do again. Too bad Klausner decided to bow out, she and Dauber would have made a great team but Casell is good too.

@Garland Now: I think the district decided not to reopen Garland because the north cluster of elementary schools isn't projected to have more enrollment and we don't want students crossing Oregon Expwy. I don't know if that's right or not.

Posted by Why?, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 5, 2012 at 5:04 pm

If centralized decision making would be useful, why does Skelly not want it as a policy? He is, after all, the chief executive who would get to make many of the decisions in question.

While it seems nice to some board members to grant themselves more authority - e.g., they get to decide how XYZ gets done at every school, not the teachers, principals, and administrators - it is not at clear why board members would make better decisions than the team we hired to run the district.

Rather than say how things should be done, the board should SET OBJECTIVES and TRACK METRICS on how we're doing, and use those to review the performance of the Superintendent and his team. This is an appropriate governance role for a group of people who, let's face it, aren't trained or experienced in running school districts.

Posted by Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 5, 2012 at 6:37 pm

I tend to think that we need a school board made up of very diverse individuals but all having experience in our schools.

I would like to thank both Ken and Camille for running as I believe that both decided late in the day in order to ensure that we had an election and not a shoe in. For this reason, I am not completely sure that either of them are passionate about being board members (again in Camille's case) but at the same time are both willing to put in the hard work that being on the board necessitates.

On choosing who to vote for, it must be worth remembering who the incumbents are and what the final board will look like with at least one new member sitting alongside at least three veterans.

Posted by Words matter, a resident of Terman Middle School
on Oct 5, 2012 at 6:52 pm

Barbara was no better or worse than the other four board members, but that she is not running again is a good decision because I've never seen a board speak so much and really do so little. Speak less, vote much less glacially, and stop asking for more information such as in the math, calendar, and counseling issues. It's almost as if they hide behind that. Step out in front, get to the point, vote, and end the theater of acting like they have any idea of what really happens at the sites or 25 Churchill. "Site control" is part of the illusion that your parcel tax and bond monies are necessary. Skelly doesn't want central control because then he would have to deal with the exposure of a dysfunctional system that spends more money on legal fees than teacher training.

Posted by Nice person, bad idea, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 5, 2012 at 7:20 pm

Barbara is a nice person, but is a flawed board member, which she recognized and choose not to run again. She was frustrated to learn that Board members don't get to decide how education is delivered. Despite popular confusion, that's not their job - which is good, since they have no training or expertise. She now advocates more central control. Nice person, bad idea.

Posted by Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 5, 2012 at 7:25 pm

Please remember to be respectful in these comments. We have had too many threads closed down to discussion because of posters not being respectful.

I should add to my above post that I also want to thank Heidi for running. All three candidates are good people who want the best for our kids. They may have different views or styles, but they are willing to do a thankless task that most of us would not want or be able to do and they deserve our consideration in a respectful manner.

Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 5, 2012 at 7:29 pm

Just to clarify a few points. Ken Dauber did not initiate the homework discussion or the calendar discussion. He does seem to take credit for them in his website, however. It does seem that he can be reasonable when he gets his way. When he doesn't get his way, he requests hundreds of emails looking for a smoking gun. Can't imagine the number of hours this took the district to accomplish and how much money that translates into. His insistence that Gunn fully adopt Paly's guidance model, even though there are documented flaws in that model, makes no sense. Change doesn't happen overnight and when it does it is usually unsuccessful. It also does nothing for the building of trust from the people that we entrust our children to. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Site based control , a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 5, 2012 at 7:48 pm

The topic of this thread is site based control and Barbara Klausners editorial. Ken did a valuable community service in his work on homework, counseling and transparency. Lets stick to the issues, facts, and the topic.

Posted by Jan H., a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 5, 2012 at 8:42 pm

Jan H. is a registered user.

I do not know what to think of PA schools anymore. Recently, there have been many schools at the elementary and middle school level that have scored higher, inspire of less homework ( Los Gatos, Willow Glen, Campbell, to name a few). Yet at the high school level, I have seen so much student burn-out. Many Paly grads get into elite colleges, but drop out after a year because " college turned out to be too much like a big high school", I.e., Paly.
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Many of my Son's and foster daughter's friends did not even want to go to college for fear of it being too much like Paly. They were totally burned out and did not want to see the inside of a school ever again.....and these were NOT underachievers.

Obviously, we as parents and school personnel Are something wrong when gifted,
promising kids do not wish to continue their education , even when their parents can afford it, even when they are eligible for scholarships. It is such a tragic waste!

Has anyone thought about THIS problem?

Posted by local mom, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 5, 2012 at 11:35 pm

I voted for Barbara, and have my own criticisms and praises like anyone else. But I'd like to thank her for her service to the community -- anyone who thinks it's easy is welcome to run -- and for taking the time to talk about what would improve the board. (It's for many of the same reasons that I will be voting for Ken Dauber.)

Posted by Rajiv Bhateja, a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Oct 6, 2012 at 9:23 am

>> "Ken Dauber did not initiate the homework discussion or the calendar discussion. He does seem to take credit for them in his website, however."

No one person on the planet can take credit for initiating a discussion about homework. Ken he championed the cause and worked with the school district on it. He should get credit for that.

>> "His insistence that Gunn fully adopt Paly's guidance model, even though there are documented flaws in that model, makes no sense."

That it makes no sense is an opinion. And there are documented flaws in every model for everything in the universe, from gravity to the behavior of sea turtles.

The statistical survey data shows that Paly's guideance model is better than Gunn's by over 5% points on an OVERWHELMING set of vectors. That's hard data. Not opinion.

Let's stick to facts and issues. Not personal vendettas.

Posted by Read-The-Ed-Code, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 6, 2012 at 3:27 pm

Ms. Klausner quotes the PAUSD by-laws, but the Ed Code is what we need to be considering--where school boards are concerned:

SECTION 35160-35178.4

Web Link

Posted by TopDownBottomUp, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 6, 2012 at 3:42 pm

In any organization, public or private the organization can make effective decisions at the top, or at the bottom if a few things are kept in mind:
- decisions work best closest to the data, the values, and implementation
- delegating decision MUST be accompanied by delegation of authority and responsibility.
- delegating decisions DOES NOT mean abdicating accountability
- oversight and accountability remains the responsibility of the board, regardless if decisions are delegated.
- deciding values of the community CANNOT be delegated to a site. It remains the job of the board to use a public process to determine community values.
- site based decisions which lack responsibility (at the site), accountability (from above) and operate without community values are often places where corruption, misrepresentation, and mistreatment hide.

Our board did us great harm by instituting site based decision making, then washing their hands of their oversight and accountability roles. Ms Klausner alludes to the need for accountability. Without this, we see processes which are not transparent, inequity in services, and other problems far more severe. Site-based decision making cannot be a buzz-word to cover for poor site management.

The board also did great harm to the sites by not offering the benefit of their oversight - it has undermined the credibility of various sites within the community.

By all means, I think we should work to preserve site-based decision making for it's benefits of innovation, and responsiveness. But the board MUST ASSERT ITSELF in holding sites accountable to community values and MUST NOT abdicate responsibility.

Otherwise the erosion of confidence will continue until site based methods are abandoned.

Posted by For health, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 6, 2012 at 3:48 pm

I agree with Jan H. The process issues that Klausner raises are important and sound like Dauber's (and I hear she's been calling elected officials on his behalf). But what's most meaningful is how we get to a better balance for students. I appreciate what I've heard about this from Dauber, that we can do a much better job of recognizing that health and learning go together -- but i need some more specifics from him and the other candidates though about how we can protect top students fron burning out or worse from stress and lack of sleep.
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Obvious?, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 6, 2012 at 6:08 pm

" But the board MUST ASSERT ITSELF in holding sites accountable to community values and MUST NOT abdicate responsibility."

I'm not really sure what this means. If it means the board should define metrics to measure school ("site") performance and then monitor the result, who could argue? We went through a "strategic planning process" and then proceeded to largely ignore the plan and the metrics that came out of it (anyone remember?). That's basically what any board should do - set objectives, monitor results, and guide, incent, and hire/fire senior leaders based on the results. But they don't have to hold "sites" responsible - they should hold the super responsible - that's their job.

The idea that the board should decide what kind of counseling we should have at Gunn, for instance, seems nutty to me. How they know what's right? What they should do is define the outcome measures for that school and every other and get management to focus on them. Should make for shorter meeting and a more effective relationship with the staff.

Posted by Not so obvious , a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2012 at 8:21 am

If setting goals was enough we would have had TA at Gunn 15 years ago. The buck stops at the school board, which has to say sometimes No we really mean it this time. Otherwise we hear about site control and organic change and nothing actually happens.

Posted by Obvious?, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2012 at 10:28 am

@Not so obvious - I disagree. Again, what do the Board members know about what counseling regime we should have at Gunn? They are no more experts than you or me. What they should care about are agreed up metrics - graduation rates, college matriculation rates, measures of socio-emotional health, etc. The Board's job is to identify those metrics, most of which should stay the same over time, and some new ones to address emerging issues, and watch them. If the metrics are being hit, why should they, or we, care about how counseling is organized, any more than we should care about how the classes are scheduled or who the Chemistry instructional supervisor is? If they are not met, there needs to be a plan to improve the result; if no improvement, new managers - principals, superintendents - are needed.

I agree that the Board needs to assert its authority - but doing so on the wrong issues is worse than doing nothing. Don't meddle in operations; focus the managers, and the community, on the important results.

Posted by Not so obvious , a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Policy isn't just metrics and goals, it often includes how goals are to be pursued. So while it would be nice to draw the clean line you want to it isn't possible ( for example Dauber and Caswel apparentlyl want a single counseling model in both high schools). There is also the time factor. No Board is going to go along with clearly mistaken decisions while it waits for metrics to come back. Saying that the board can fire staff is true but impractical. Why would a Board want to give itself only one tool?

Posted by Obvious?, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2012 at 2:30 pm

The policy would work far better if the Board focuses on the objectives, not the means. The board *could* mandate all sorts of operating policies - schedules, teaching methods, you name it. But what is the value in it? It is very tempting for the Board meddle in operations - they get to be "in charge." But I can't see the value in that approach, while I easily see the pitfalls.

"Clearly mistaken decisions" - if the mistake is so "clear," the solution is to replace the person who made it; otherwise, why did you hire that person who makes obvious, and presumably important, mistakes? While mistakes will be made, it seems much more likely that the Board would be the one to make mistakes in dictating operations; they are part-time amateurs, just like the rest of us.

Posted by Not so obvious, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2012 at 3:18 pm

Well some of the candidates meet the part-time amateur description, but Caswell and Dauber clearly have deep management chops and Dauber probably understands educational data as well or better than anyone in the district. Anyway this is a democratic system, just like the state legislature, city council or Congress. In each of those situations there are expert managers taking oversight and direction from elected officials. John Adams was a lawyer and a farmer, not a professional bureaucrat.

Posted by This is America, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 7, 2012 at 3:43 pm

Obvious you would obviously like to not have any elected officials at all and just have a government run by bureaucrats. But this isn't the Soviet Union it's America. And it also isn't private school. It's public school in the USA. Obvious would rather not have oversight. Go to Russia and you can have government by technocrats and cronies. Here it's different.

Posted by Obvious?, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2012 at 5:14 pm

@Not so obvious - none of the Board are professional educators or full-time. Dauber is an ex-sociology prof and now a software engineer, Caswell worked as a software marketing person. I'm sure they are good at what they do, but no matter how smart or well-intended, neither they, nor the other board members, should not be deciding in any detailed way how education or counseling is delivered, any more than you or I should. They should focus on setting objectives, monitoring key performance indicators, and managing senior management - just like any good Board should.

Note that the Board of Education isn't a legislative or executive body. The President, Governor, etc., are full-time and usually experienced professional legislators or other politicians. Our Congress and CA state legislature is full-time, and against mostly professional politicians (though they may have done something else previously and in some cases concurrently). The Palo Alto Board is a non-paid, part-time board, made up of elected residents, who hire a professional management staff to run the school district - closer to a corporate board of directors, who are similarly part-time and often without first-hand knowledge of the company's activity. They perform a different job - the one I have described above - which can be done well by seasoned, experienced individuals. You sometimes see corporate board members try to manage the business, second guessing and over-riding their hired managers. As one would expect, this usually ends badly (for a close at hand example, see HP).

Posted by TopDownBottomUp, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 7, 2012 at 5:31 pm

@Obvious? writes: "what do the Board members know about what counseling regime we should have at Gunn? They are no more experts than you or me"..."If they[metrics] are not met, there needs to be a plan to improve the result; if no improvement, new managers - principals, superintendents - are needed."

This is a confusing argument - by your logic, we should elect board members who have no knowledge about education, and these people will (somehow) be able to determine when metrics are not being met and then dish out some retribution on the management. Stir, mix, repeat.

Far better, I think, to elect board members who know something about education (that is why all the questions at forums...) and they can work with management to set up organizations, accountability, decision making authority, etc. to ensure that metrics ARE met. Developing an organization with an informed board is far more likely to be successful than some weird alternative where an uninformed board creates an organization that somehow succeeds.

Simplest example where this breaks: your position is that the boards only involvement is to hire/fire the management. So, how does an uninformed board hire a management team if they are not education experts? Or at least better informed than lay person? Will this be a great superintendent or a poor one? I believe the uninformed will hire the clueless.

I would prefer a board that knows what they are doing, and take a more active role in defining where the decision making happens, and who is accountable for it.

Ultimately they are accountable; if they take this seriously, they will not delegate to someone who has not demonstrated the capabilities they want to see.

Site based decision making needs definition and oversight by the board. It is not a license to run schools out of control of the electorate.

Posted by Volunteer, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 8, 2012 at 12:06 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Gunn Grad, a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 17, 2012 at 2:27 pm

I have to say that I am pleased with this news. I really hope that Palo Alto doesn't buy what Mr. Dauber is selling.

Our community has something really special when it comes to our schools. Only in our district can you get such a strong education at a public school- in almost any other place, you can only find academics like ours at an exclusive, private institution. I know many people worry about the stress associated with a high academic workload, but I think many of us see the challenging nature of Palo Alto schools as an opportunity rather than an imposition. I felt like I experienced less stress in college than many of my peers because I walked into my classes fully prepared with the background knowledge and academic skills necessary, while some others floundered and felt frightened and depressed, struggling with both new academic challenges and the challenges of living away from home.

I know that some students at Gunn pile on more AP classes than they can handle, but there are many more, myself included, that took AP's but took a reasonable number and were challenged but not overwhelmed. Rather than mandating limits on homework levels, telling teachers when they can and cannot assign work, and imposing other crude, blanket rules on the classrooms, I think we would be better off helping to educate students and families about the costs and benefits of adding higher-stress classes to their schedule, and then let them make an informed decision.

Palo Alto schools gave me a real opportunity in life that I otherwise might not have been afforded. I really hope that Palo Alto votes to preserve that opportunity for students that come after me and avoids candidates like Dauber that don't really understand the complexity of young life and student learning.

Posted by Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 19, 2012 at 3:59 pm

This appears to be the only school board candidate thread where I can post.

After reading, discussing, doing research, I think I have made a decision I am happy with.

My top priority is that we get a balanced board with some fresh faces. We have an election and we have some choice and that is good.

Melissa has my vote for continuity of what she has been doing.

After that, it is not so easy. Ken has done a lot to upset people, but at the same time he is a breath of fresh air. I don't agree with him on everything but I really do think he will be a good board member as he will look at everything from a different perspective to the way the rest look at things.

Then who to choose after that is harder again. Heidi brings a lot of enthusiasm but little experience. She is still in the elementary stage and that might work well with her. She will be able to look at secondary school issues from an objective perspective rather than a personal perspective. Her lack of experience initially may work against her, but it doesn't mean that she can't learn on the job. Her lack of experience may just mean that she can see something obvious that others don't see. She is also in a position where she can get away with looking inexperienced and abstain if necessary on a vote.

Lastly, Camille, who has served longer than most board members, has to be the one to forfeit her place. If she was to be elected with Melissa, then the board would be too much the same as at present. We need to have change and I really want to see the two new faces.

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