School board candidates air issues | October 19, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 19, 2012

School board candidates air issues

Site-based decision-making, teacher evaluations, among topics in panel led by state Sen. Joe Simitian

by Chris Kenrick

Incumbents touted the academic and fiscal strength of Palo Alto schools while challengers said the school district could be doing better on a range of issues Monday night, Oct. 15, at a school board candidates' forum.

Three of the four candidates said they would back a longer probationary period for teachers before tenure is granted while the fourth, Ken Dauber, said he would support data gathering to see whether the current two-year probationary period is or isn't working. Extending the two-year probationary period would require a change in state law.

Four candidates — challengers Heidi Emberling and Dauber and incumbents Camille Townsend and Melissa Baten Caswell — are competing for three seats on the Palo Alto school board in the Nov. 6 election.

Dauber came across as the strongest critic, saying the board needs to "bridge the gap between sentiment and reality" on a range of issues related to academic stress.

"We need to move beyond the idea that there's a problem, and we need to do something about it," he said.

Caswell, Emberling and Townsend pointed to anti-stress programs that recently have been put in place.

"Sometimes you just have to let people do their work," Townsend said.

Citing the district's new homework policy, adoption of the wellness program Developmental Assets and activities of the community coalition Project Safety Net, Townsend said: "The district has taken a lot of action in the last few years."

In Academic Performance Index scores that last week ranked Palo Alto sixth in the state, the biggest gains came from low-income and minority students, she said.

Dauber said he and a parent group he cofounded, We Can Do Better Palo Alto, could take credit for prodding the board on some of the new anti-stress policies.

"We've made some progress on this, and I've been involved," he said.

Dauber said the district's culture of letting schools choose their own programs and processes — known as site-based decision-making — has gone too far, stifling the spread of best practices across the school district.

"Too often (deference to site-based decision-making) means we deliver uneven quality," he said, mentioning the differing counseling programs at the two high schools, the time lag before the JLS Middle School orientation for sixth-graders spread to the two other middle schools and the "patchy" implementation of the technology-based communication tool "Schoology."

Caswell said there's a "delicate balance" between site-based decision-making and centralized control. Citing her management experience in technology companies, she said professionals do their best work when they're given clear goals and metrics, not when they are micro-managed.

"The district should set policy and metrics very clearly, make sure people understand them, and let innovation happen at the sites," she said.

Caswell and Townsend acknowledged the board could have done better setting clear policy and metrics in some instances, but noted agendas for board meetings have been changed to push for more clarity.

Dauber advocated more frequent board votes, rather than inconclusive discussions, as a means to provide clear direction for the superintendent.

Asked to sum up the single item at the top of their to-do list to boost student learning, Caswell said: To make strategic investments to ensure students have the opportunity to try new things, find their passions and become leaders.

Dauber said: To ensure the district is listening to students through the use of data.

Emberling said: To make sure all students feel connected to a caring adult on campus and have a positive connection to school.

Townsend said: To keep doors open for students, including a higher bar for graduation, so they will have the classes they need.

Monday's forum, the seventh of nine in the school board race, was moderated by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and sponsored by the Palo Alto Weekly.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at


Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2012 at 10:14 am

As an observer of many of the PSN meetings, which are open to the public, I get irritated when Ken Dauber takes credit for anti stress policies. While I didn't make every meeting I never saw him there, however, he felt free to co-opt their work. Everything that his group lobbied for was already in the works, through the work of the PSN committees and through the PTAs. These groups chose to work collaboratively with the schools and the district and board. There were no ugly exchange of emails and criticisms in the weekly by these groups. While the intent of the Dauber's group was good, its methods were ugly and not useful in building consensus. Hopefully he has learned from this.

Posted by another parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2012 at 10:42 am

@ parent, what you say holds true for HS Graduation requirements and Gunn and Paly counseling programs as well. The WCDBPA has come late to all of these initiatives which were begun by other parents, including Board Members, the district office and school site staff, while the WCDBPA members were not on the radar screen, individually or collectively.

Posted by Misha, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 16, 2012 at 10:52 am

I could not agree more with parent and another parent. The many organizations and individuals who have invested a great deal of time, energy, thought, and initiative in efforts through coordination and collaboration in PSN has been most admirable. While they do not obviously show up and harangue at school board meetings, they have rolled up their sleeves and gotten to action. And some of the individuals active in PSN have actually spoken quite frequently and passionately at school board meetings, just to be clear. They just don't brand themselves and take all the credit.

One example of real action with real impact that has been quietly done throughout the secondary schools and through efforts of PSN members is QPR training for all staff, teachers, coaches, etc. Like CPR training, QPR provides education, techniques, and resources that empowers one to have the awareness and courage to better realize when someone is in crisis and in need of help, and how to help them. Powerful and critically important to youth survival and well-being.

Posted by Forum Attendee, a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 16, 2012 at 10:55 am

@parent: Ken has never tried to take credit for anti-stress policies. He did not initiate those policies or try to take credit for them as far as I know. He has only been guilty of reminding the PAUSD board of their commitment to initiate PSN's P8 which they had supposedly taken on as one of their goals. If PSN had lobbied for these things and they were "in the works" means that they were sitting there with no action and were likely to sit there for a much longer time while our students suffer then this is really unacceptable. Why wasn't the PSN collaborative lobbying stronger for action on something as important as P8? Heidi said in her ballot statement that she is was on the "PSN Collaborative" (which she later retracted I believe). I would have loved to have seen Heidi or anyone else from the PSN collaborative at the PAUSD board meetings advocating for adoption of PSN's suggestions (particularly P8!). Camille's comment, "Sometimes you just have to let people do their work," unfortunately doesn't cut it when the work isn't being done. While people are "doing their work" our kids are hurting. Thank God there is someone out there willing to stand up for what is right. If you want the same old same old then vote for the same old same old. We can use some new views on the board. I will cast my vote for Ken as I see he is interested in bettering our schools and creating a more stress free environment for all of our students. I think that all voters in the district would agree that our kids deserve a happier and healthier student experience.

Posted by Gunn parent, a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 16, 2012 at 11:26 am

Ken has never claimed all of the credit for any of these things, but in fact before he became involved in advocating to the school board the district had made no progress on a whole set of issues, even though they were clearly called out in the Project Safety Net plan.

- Homework: The homework committee that Ken served on was set up after he presented data on the amount of homework students are doing, and the stress it causes them. We now have a policy with homework time limits for the first time.

- Counseling: Despite a strategic plan calling for improved counseling, the district had not even thought to compare our high schools, until Ken brought data to the board about the counseling gap. Caswell conceded that point at last night's forum.

- Test and project stacking: Ken advocated for preventing overload for our students and the Board adopted a focused goal in response (on which unfortunately no progress was made).

- Pre-break finals: Ken advocated for a calendar that gives our high school students a work-free break (part of the PSN plan), and has said that he wants to maintain that benefit even as we explore less disruptive alternatives to the current calendar. All 3 other candidates voted or would have voted against a work-free break.

- Curricular alignment: Ken brought data to the Board showing that some of our classes are not meeting students where they are, leading Caswell and Klausner to call for an investigation of the level of courses in our lowest lane (unfortunately, again no progress).

- A focused goal for reducing academic stress: This came as a direct result of Ken's advocacy, and has been in place for 2 years.

Ken and WCDB have always seen Project Safety Net as essential partners in making progress for our kids, and he has been a tireless and effective advocate of PSN's efforts.

The Weekly editorial endorsing Dauber has the right story here:
The community's despair over the suicides also gave rise to Project Safety Net (PSN), a collaborative of community organizations, the city, school district and concerned individuals committed to a comprehensive response to the needs of Palo Alto youth.

We Can Do Better Palo Alto, the grass-roots group co-founded by Dauber and his wife last year, became a consistent prod to the district to make these efforts a top priority, and an advocate for using better data analysis to aid policy decisions, especially in the realm of high school counseling.

While groups in the PSN collaborative opted not to use their influence and take positions on issues in front of the school board, We Can Do Better Palo Alto advocated for measures to reduce student stress, including a change in the school calendar, a district homework policy and enforcement of designated no-homework days, and adoption of a unified counseling system modeled after the teacher advisory system used at Palo Alto High School."

It's perfectly fine to decide not to engage in advocacy before our local elected officials, but it's unfair to criticize those who have taken the time and effort to do so on behalf of all of our kids. Let's all work together.

Posted by Endorsements, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2012 at 11:27 am

Our town could not have two more divergent newspaper endorsements for school board.

At issue is who will get the second and third board seats – Board President Camille Townsend, district critic Ken Dauber, or newcomer Heidi Emberling.

Both papers praise Townsend, are middling on Emberling, but couldn’t be further apart on how they view Dauber.

The Weekly publicly urged Dauber to run and so endorses him while the Daily Post’s editor Dave Price published an article Monday that said that “the most important editorial” that he has ever written in his entire career as a journalist was when he wrote to urge his readership to NOT vote for Ken Dauber.

The Daily Post calls Dauber a “verbal bomb thrower” because of his public and private comments, like Dauber’s words he said demonized Gunn’s staff and counseling program and came “uncomfortably close to accusing [Paly] teachers of being racists." The Post reports that Dauber’s assessment of our school district boils down to this: “a $154 million well-oiled machine for producing academic stress and all its attendant problems." It appears that on this point the Weekly agrees too, noting Dauber’s “criticism and aggressive style”

What reason did the Weekly have to not pick Townsend?

It’s hard to tell.

The Weekly mentions that during Camille Townsend’s tenure the district’s finances, between the building bond and the widely popular parcel tax voted which happened under her watch, have “been managed exceedingly well." It praises the current board’s ability to develop a strategic plan and stick to it. It even applauds the district’s new social emotional initiatives.

It notes Townsend’s deep experience on the board in juxtaposition to Emberling’s, whom they say they do not know what kind of board member she’ll be “because over the years she has opted to observe meetings rather than advocate for her point of view.”

The Weekly singles Townsend out for “her tireless efforts to beat back attempts to cut state support for Palo Alto schools,” noting with admiration that “no one cares more about kids and the school district” than Camille Townsend does.

Despite all those praises and accolades, the bottom line for the Weekly is that it is time for new leadership because the current board takes too much time when presented with complicated, costly and difficult issues.

For the Weekly it appears voters should vote for process over experience and criticism over caring.

Posted by Paly parent, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 16, 2012 at 11:35 am

There are a great many groups and individuals in Palo Alto who have worked hard to improve PAUSD schools. There are also many students and parents in Palo Alto who suffer in silence because they are resigned to the status quo and afraid of the folks in the community who fire slings and arrows at those who dare to advocate for change. The importance of WCDBPA and Ken Dauber, as well as others like SEAN and PNSC, who have advocated at PAUSD board meetings is that they have pushed the board to finally take action on certain issues instead of sitting around wringing their hands as they are prone to do when faced with anything more important than how wide the seats should be in the new Paly Theater building.

For example, Gunn students and parents have been complaining about poor counseling for decades. It took Dauber's group to finally light a fire under the board and get them to push Gunn for the counseling improvements students should have had years ago. Dr. Skelly was in favor of changing the graduation requirements to meet A-G (even though the Paly Math Department pushed hard against it because it didn't want to be responsible for teaching Algebra II to all students), but the board was allowing the issue to languish. Dauber's group teamed up with SEAN and the PNSC to prod the board into action.

I agree with @Forum Attendee. Thank God for WCDBPA and others in the community like Ken Dauber who are willing to stand up for students and parents who have been suffering in silence for so long.

Posted by Gunn parent, a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 16, 2012 at 12:05 pm

I just don't get the negative reaction to Ken Dauber. To me, he is the absolute epitome of how one person, committed and unselfish, can make a difference. I've heard him at school board meetings. His ideas are smart and professional. He's cordial, polite, clear, and firm. He might have ruffled some feathers by starting his own group and bucking the status quo, but as someone who has struggled for years to recruit and to convince people to volunteer for our schools, I am thrilled to accept his substantial contribution. I hope he wins.

Posted by Middle school parent, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 16, 2012 at 12:05 pm

So, one paper endorses Ken because he's been good at finally getting the district to act on its priorities, and the other does not because they think he's not nice enough and too critical.

Well, sometimes it takes a person willing not to be liked by everyone to get things done. Ken's strengths (and even his style) are desperately lacking in our board, especially his penchant for using FACTS and information to inform decisionmaking, and then ACTING.

Having been a parent in this district for many years, I think Ken is our only hope of getting improved functioning and accountability out of the board. I say this with full knowledge of his personality style the other paper is so critical of. This is not a beauty pageant.

Posted by another parent, a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 16, 2012 at 12:07 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Posted by Barron Parker, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 16, 2012 at 1:03 pm

Barron Parker is a registered user.

In both this campaign and in his board advocacy, Ken has been unfailingly polite and always shown respect to individuals. Following the suicides, Ken and a lot of other community leaders in Palo Alto [portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff] felt strongly that we needed to go another direction. Ken decided to say publicly what a lot of our leaders were (and still are) saying privately, and for that he took a lot of arrows.

He has focused on issues and has a positive message. Unfortunately not so for Dave Price, and the Dave Price fan club on this board who have criticized him on a personal basis, not for issues but on false statements about him personally, about his family, and even cruel comments by posters to this board about his loss of his daughter to suicide.

This community would benefit from focusing on the issues. There is room for reasonable people to differ about what the right way forward for our schools is. Ken would like to reduce academic stress and thinks that's the way to boost achievement and student health. He wants to build the levee before the next hurricane instead of after. Ken's criticism of the schools has been entirely transparent and based on issues. Agree or disagree on the issues, and leave personalities aside.

Posted by determinant, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 16, 2012 at 1:44 pm

determinant is a registered user.

@Gunn Parent
I think you have to ask yourself if someone who has become so divisive at the board, staff & community level is the right person to have on the board. You need only look at the forums. You don't get the same decisiveness about any other candidate.

Posted by it takes a village, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 16, 2012 at 2:59 pm

it takes a village is a registered user.

I have attended three forums to learn about our candidates. While my own kids have graduated, I guess that I am sort of an outsider - just part of the general voting public. As a resident, I am happy with our schools and appreciate all the parent involvement for making things even better. At one of the forums that I attended all four candidates expressed how great a job Dr. Skelly has done. Yet, I hear differently on this board. If I vote for Ken, I would like to know why I am hearing different points of views from him about Dr Skelly. I actually support Dr. Skelly and want to make an informed decision.

Posted by JLS mom of 2, a resident of JLS Middle School
on Oct 16, 2012 at 4:08 pm

JLS mom of 2 is a registered user.

What you have to realize about this board is that it's only a few people posting, and the people who are posting are doing it in order to influence public opinion about their candidate (or they may even be the candidate). So you are not getting a real read about what people think of the candidates. That goes for everybody not just Ken there are more negative comments about Camille here and on other threads than most people think. After all she won her last election and she seems to be doing pretty well.

I think Camille got unfairly treated by the Weekly, at least when I have seen her she is better informed and more clear than the Weekly says, and at least she answers the questions which is a problem for Heidi. I'm planning to vote for her. On Dr. Skelly it seems like nobody is completely happy, Melissa criticized him pretty strongly last night. I didn't hear Ken say one way or the other.

Posted by Peggy Duncan, a resident of Community Center
on Oct 16, 2012 at 8:00 pm

Peggy Duncan is a registered user.

I attended last night's forum, and found it very interesting. Again Caswell and Dauber were clearer and more informed than the other candidates. Senator Simitian did a good job of following up. I found Townsend more willing to answer questions than Emberling, though both often seemed unwilling to be pinned down (or unable, in Emberling's case). I will probably give my third vote to Townsend, even though she is running for a third term. I just don't think Emberling is ready this time around.

Posted by Wynn Hausser, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 17, 2012 at 12:41 am

Wynn Hausser is a registered user.

@Barron Parker said: "[Ken] has focused on issues and has a positive message. Unfortunately not so for Dave Price, and the Dave Price fan club on this board who have criticized him on a personal basis, not for issues but on false statements about him personally, about his family, and even cruel comments by posters to this board about his loss of his daughter to suicide."

Here, here. The attacks on Ken Dauber stretch the limits of decency. If people disagree with Ken on issues, fine. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

On the other hand, I will add that I've been finding many of the comments on the school board threads to be thoughtful. It seems people are really weighing their votes. Whether I agree with their conclusions or not, it's refreshing to see. Maybe the answer is to force everyone to be a registered user to comment - it certainly elevates the level of discourse.

Posted by determinant, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 17, 2012 at 8:26 am

determinant is a registered user.

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by determinant, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 17, 2012 at 8:43 am

determinant is a registered user.

Thanks PA Online staff for cleaning up the inappropriate comments.

As you can see from the editors response to your post, requiring registered users doesn't elevate the level of discourse.

Posted by Barron Parker, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 17, 2012 at 8:50 am

Barron Parker is a registered user.

I hope that readers of this board realize that this is a classic bit of negative campaigning, with a nice twist: accuse your opponent of being negative and divisive. Astroturfing is alive and well on Palo Alto Online.

On Dave Price versus the Weekly, people have to choose who to listen to of course. The Weekly has consistently cared about the well-being of our students, and was a strong voice during and after the tragedies for a response. Their endorsement of Ken is part of that, and cites his concern for supporting the academic, social and emotional success of our students.

Price thinks that everything is just fine, and that it's wrong to worry about whether our kids get equal services from the district, whether they have too much stress, whether we are doing well for all students, including disadvantaged children. He doesn't cover any of these issues, and doesn't care about them, probably because of his libertarian ideology. He thinks if test scores are high, nothing else matters. Ken thinks we can have high test scores and improved health. I agree with the Weekly on this, and I suspect that is true of the vast majority of Palo Altans.

Posted by Fred, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 17, 2012 at 9:40 am

Fred is a registered user.

@Barron Parker - you think "the vast majority" agrees with you. Guess what - everyone else thinks that too. You think Dave Price is dumb (or whatever) and the Weekly "consistently cared" - others equally, and with equal validity, think the Weekly is chasing away Skelly over personality issue and that Dave Price has it right.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

My view, personally, is that Mr. Dauber struck a chord, but is way too volatile to have on the school board. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] While I laud his energy and good intentions, this seems like a guy who is determined to get his way and is unlikely to play well with others. And I do believe, as Dave Price wrote, that Skelly will start taking calls from recruiters the day after the election if Dauber is voted in, and once we drive him out, any new candidates will think long and hard before taking his place.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Barron Parker, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 17, 2012 at 9:47 am

Barron Parker is a registered user.

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Nadine Gordimer, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 17, 2012 at 10:11 am

Nadine Gordimer is a registered user.

As tensions mount in these last weeks of the campaign I hope that we can stick to the issues and avoid scurrilous personal attacks on the candidates. All of the candidates were asked to sign on to the Code of Fair Campaign Practices Web Link
when they filed their candidacy papers. I hope that all of the candidates did sign on and will remind their campaigns of the provisions stated below including the provision for public repudiation by the candidate of any individual or group that violates this code.

CODE OF FAIR CAMPAIGN PRACTICES (Election Code Sections 20400-20444)

Section 20440
(2) I SHALL NOT USE OR PERMIT the use of character defamation, whispering campaigns, libel, slander, or scurrilous attacks on any candidate or his or her personal or family life.

(6) I SHALL IMMEDIATELY AND PUBLICLY REPUDIATE support deriving from any individual or group that resorts, on behalf of my candidacy or in opposition to that of my opponent, to the methods and tactics that I condemn. I shall accept responsibility to take firm action against any subordinate who violates any provision of this code or the laws governing elections.

Posted by Fred, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 17, 2012 at 10:26 am

Fred is a registered user.

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by determinant, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 17, 2012 at 10:31 am

determinant is a registered user.

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.


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