School board race expands with two newcomers, one incumbent | August 7, 2020 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 7, 2020

School board race expands with two newcomers, one incumbent

DiBrienza to seek second term; two parents also to run for open seats

by Elena Kadvany

The Palo Alto Unified school board race is heating up, with two additional newcomers in the running and an incumbent announcing her re-election bid.

Jennifer DiBrienza, who is nearing the end of her first term on the Board of Education, confirmed she plans to seek a second term. Board President Todd Collins, also in his first term, has pulled papers for the race but said he's not yet decided whether he will run. The deadline for filing is Aug. 7.

The two newcomers are parents Karna Nisewaner, a lawyer, and Jesse Ladomirak, who owns Teevan, a housing restoration company in San Francisco.

Katie Causey, a Palo Alto Unified graduate, also announced in July that she's running for a seat on the five-member board.

Three seats will be up for grabs in November when the terms of board members Collins, DiBrienza and Melissa Baten Caswell expire. Baten Caswell is seeking a seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Education.

Below is information about DiBrienza's and Nisewaner's campaigns. Ladomirak declined an interview at this time.

Jennifer DiBrienza

DiBrienza, a former teacher and parent of three children, said in an interview she's proud of the progress the district has made in improving leadership, transparency and operations since her election in 2016. She sat on the dais through enormous turnover and controversy, including the resignation of former Superintendent Max McGee, the departure of other top-level administrators and uproar over the district's handling of campus sexual violence and budget issues. In 2018, she voted to hire current Superintendent Don Austin as McGee's replacement.

DiBrienza served as board president in 2019, when the district grappled with the potential impact of Stanford University's ambitious expansion plan.

DiBrienza said she had always planned to run for a second term. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, she felt like Palo Alto Unified — with "radically improved" operations and leadership in place — was on the cusp of making progress on issues she's prioritized, particularly related to student mental health and closing the achievement gap.

The coronavirus has only "magnified" those systemic issues, she said.

"Before COVID-19, it was really all about continuing the work I finally felt we were set up to accomplish," DiBrienza said. "After COVID, it's all COVID all the time, as it should be, but those things aren't really separate: our mental health and wellness, our connectivity, our equity are all rolled into that. We really have to continue to get better at each of these things that we're trying to do to make sure we're reaching all kids."

DiBrienza said the district is at an "inflection point" with its work to improve outcomes for minority and low-income students. She pointed to the creation of an assistant superintendent for equity position, the investment in full-time elementary school reading specialists, the board's commitment to having a standing agenda item on equity, anti-bias professional development happening this summer and groups of teachers reading the book "White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism" together as examples of ongoing work in that area.

Deepening the district's understanding of and commitment to addressing inequity is even more critical as the district prepares to begin a new school year fully online, she said.

She's "optimistic" that elementary schools will be able to physically reopen sooner, at some point in the fall, citing the growing evidence that children are at lower risk for contracting and spreading COVID-19. But she supports committing to a set time period for distance learning so that teachers, students and families can focus.

Worried about how the shutdown has impacted students' mental health, she wants the district to prioritize students' return to campus in person for safe social interaction and engagement in small groups.

DiBrienza began her career as an elementary school teacher and eventually worked as an administrator in the New York City public school system. After moving to the Bay Area, she worked as an education consultant to school districts across the country.

She has three children: a rising sophomore at Palo Alto High School, a rising eighth-grader not in the district and a rising fourth-grader at Ohlone Elementary School.

Karna Nisewaner

During the coronavirus shutdown, Karna Nisewaner felt compelled to move beyond just words about the state of her children's education and into action. In the spring, she watched her children, both Addison Elementary School students, struggle with distance learning and heard from other working parents about their challenges juggling full-time jobs with their children's online education.

"It's all well and good for people to complain, to say that they don't like something or that they're not satisfied, but it's up to us to actually try to do something," she said. "I think it's important to step up and say, 'I think I could help.'"

Nisewaner has decided to make a bid for the school board to bring her perspective as a parent and lawyer.

Nisewaner, who grew up in Millbrae, has lived in Palo Alto since 2007. She started her legal career at the Palo Alto branch of intellectual property law firm Finnegan in 2001. She went on to work in legal roles at Intuit and IBM. She is currently vice president and deputy general counsel at Cadence Design Systems, an electronic design company in San Jose, where she leads a team focused on intellectual property, litigation, employment and transactions — "all of the things necessary to make sure that business is running right and following all the rules," she said.

She hopes to bring this expertise as well as commitment to transparency to the board. As the district grapples with unprecedented challenges around how to educate students during a public health crisis, Nisewaner advocated for proactive communication and flexibility.

"I don't think it's a one-size-fits-all solution and I don't think it should be," she said about when and how to reopen schools.

For the district's youngest students — which include her 10-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son — she wants the district to offer "something that goes beyond just Zoom meetings" in the fall.

Her son, who has an individualized education plan (IEP) for reading, needs to have someone sitting with him and going over online assignments. For her daughter, the hardest part was missing the social fabric of school.

Since 2017, Nisewaner has served on the board of directors for Palo Alto Community Child Care, including a term as chair. She led the board through the nonprofit's initial COVID-19 response, according to her campaign website. She suggested the district look to local child care providers for examples of how to safely serve students in person.

"I'm not going to profess to be an expert in education, but it's my job" as a lawyer, she said, "to understand the needs that various people have and figure out … (how to be) more flexible in our definition of what we're going to do."

Nisewaner also serves on the Addison school site council and volunteers with her daughter's Girl Scouts troop.

Staff Writer Elena Kadvany can be emailed at [email protected]


8 people like this
Posted by katherinecausey
a resident of University South
on Jul 31, 2020 at 8:37 pm

Welcome to the race ladies I am so excited for November!

Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North

on Aug 1, 2020 at 12:37 am

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23 people like this
Posted by Rebecca Eisenberg
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 1, 2020 at 2:17 am

Karna sounds amazing and I look forward to hearing more about her plans. We absolutely need fresh voices and big change on the School Board, and as a fellow lawyer running for local office, I agree that legal experience brings a lot to the table. Thank you for running for this challenging role! I look forward to working with you in 2021.

46 people like this
Posted by Sally-Ann Rudd
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 1, 2020 at 3:07 pm

Anyone running for school board should have all their children in public schools in Palo Alto.

22 people like this
Posted by Giselle Galper
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 2, 2020 at 9:27 am

@Sally-Ann Rudd,


38 people like this
Posted by Martha
a resident of Fairmeadow School
on Aug 3, 2020 at 5:47 am

There should be a law that only parents of students at PAUSD can run for board.

Why are parents of the school district being represented by a board which is predominately made up of members who are not stakeholders??
Beyond comprehension!!!

Otherwise, there should be a separate parents’ union like the teachers’ union to voice parent concerns and make themselves heard!

22 people like this
Posted by LG
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 3, 2020 at 10:15 am

I agree with Sally-Ann Rudd. Those running should enroll their children in PAUSD.

Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North

on Aug 3, 2020 at 11:05 am

Due to violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are only visible to registered users who are logged in. Use the links at the top of the page to Register or Login.

10 people like this
Posted by Heidi Schwenk
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 3, 2020 at 11:05 am

Where is Jennifer DiBrienza‘s child enrolled? [Portion removed.]

32 people like this
Posted by JLS mom
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 3, 2020 at 11:08 am

What did diBrienza do last spring to improve on the disaster that was asynchronous education? Seems like the entire board was asleep at the wheel - if there was any disagreement with the administration's approach, I haven't seen it. I won't vote for any of these folks again, for any elected position.

19 people like this
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 3, 2020 at 12:08 pm

I agree last Spring in PAUSD, esp. for secondary school kids, was a poor experience. Lack of instruction (i.e., teacher engagement) was the main problem. I would like to hear the Board candidates propose ideas for doing better.

16 people like this
Posted by Gunn Parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 3, 2020 at 5:14 pm

Gunn Parent is a registered user.

I hope everyone remembers how long the board drug their feet and missed several opportunities to close the schools when it was already quite clear the virus was prevalent in the community. diBrienza and her colleagues even approved continuing school the day before Santa Clara put a lid on things. If the existing board, including diBrienza, had shown leadership we could have avoided many infections and hospitalizations (and possibly deaths) and students may well have been able to enjoy graduation like many of their European counterparts. Waiting until the county tells you to close the schools is no leadership and was not reflecting the concerns of our community or the safety of our teachers and students alike. Not sure who is the right candidate to replace diBrienza, but someone new deserves a chance to do better.

13 people like this
Posted by Curious
a resident of another community
on Aug 3, 2020 at 6:45 pm

Curious is a registered user.

Hi Gunn Parent,

Just curious where I could find the data you used to conclude “many infections, hospitalizations (and possibly deaths)” could have been avoided because of the lack of leadership by our Board.

14 people like this
Posted by Greene Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 4, 2020 at 10:48 am

Greene Parent is a registered user.

The 2 board members knew that the community would question their decisions since it is a year of elections.
The board gave up control to the Superintendent who then had TOTAL power to do as he pleased, which meant that there was no need to give any REAL instruction.
Now the incumbents don't have to respond since the failure of the spring isn't on them. They are NOT a voice of the community, they aren't even invested in the community since they don't have all their kids going to our schools

Its time for change!

14 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 5, 2020 at 11:37 am

Paly Parent is a registered user.

I have known Jennifer DiBrienza for years and she is an extraordinarily bright, thoughtful, and caring leader. She listens to the community, responds to questions and welcomes discussion. Jennifer has been involved in The Black Lives Matter movement for years. I remember her asking if anyone wanted to carpool to Oakland for a BLM meeting many years ago. When my older daughter was a 5th grader at Ohlone, Jennifer came in and guest taught some math classes. She chaperoned school camping trips. Jennifer DiBrienza is involved in the Palo Alto community on every level. We are lucky that she wants to run again.

20 people like this
Posted by Samuel L
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 5, 2020 at 12:17 pm

Samuel L is a registered user.

@Paly Parent - What has she done in her four years on the school board for PAUSD? What would be her list of accomplishments? Why should she be given another four years?

What I hear from her at most board meetings is saying thanks a lot. What has she done that should make others see that she is any different than anyone else?

20 people like this
Posted by Jennifer DiBrienza
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 6, 2020 at 2:33 pm

Jennifer DiBrienza is a registered user.

@Samuel L,
Hi. Thanks for the question. I will attempt to summarize here but please email me anytime at [email protected] or visit my website at

When I first joined the board, we were fighting with the Office of Civil Rights and were at the beginning of a Title IX investigation.
I oversaw a change in leadership, a re-organization of our district office, and a shift in our budgeting practices.
We repaired our relationship with the Office of Civil Rights, created a Title IX office, and increased education for students and staff about consent.
I insisted on a full-time reading specialist at each elementary school and amplified the crisis of dyslexia with a resolution and professional development plan to address it.
I've advocated for an alignment in workload, assessments, and grading practices across courses and schools for the benefit of all students.
I have been, and will continue to be, an advocate for educational justice, calling out and committing to addressing the systemic issues that exist in our district.
And now we are facing the launch of a school year in full-distance learning mode. It has been a challenge for so many families in various ways throughout the spring and summer. Guidance has changed on a near-daily basis and the needs in the district vary just as widely. I will continue to advocate for clear communication with families, high standards for distance learning, support for those struggling with isolation, and effective pedagogies for remote engagement, authentic learning, and content mastery.

Happy to continue the conversation.
Thank you!

12 people like this
Posted by Michelle
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 7, 2020 at 12:45 pm

Michelle is a registered user.

Jennifer DiBrienza has always served our school board with great integrity, care and intelligence. She is the lone board member who has actually worked as a public school teacher and also holds a PhD in education. We are lucky that she has chosen to serve our community for the past four years in this role and is willing to run again.
Jennifer is actually a parent of 2 current students in PAUSD schools. However, that is not why she has my vote. What impresses me most is her genuine care for students and their experience in PAUSD, along with her laser focus on ensuring our schools serve all students well not just those who have traditionally experienced success here.

4 people like this
Posted by Kristen
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Aug 29, 2020 at 6:12 pm

Kristen is a registered user.

Thanks to all who are running this year—your dedication to our community is much appreciated. I’d love to support a black candidate or POC...our community is not as white as this slate would make it seem. How can we recruit and support more diversity on school board??

2 people like this
Posted by Facts and Figures
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 30, 2020 at 12:24 pm

Facts and Figures is a registered user.

1. None of the current school board members publicly supported fixed hours of live instruction in the spring, not even for high school students.

Asynchronous was supported in the name of equity. But districts with many more low income students than our district provided synchronous learning in the name of equity.

Yes, some teachers chose to teach, but that was just lucky for those students who were taught. We need a board that requires minimum standards, not one that accepts a Superintendent who pivots from "we will lead" to "it was crisis learning."

2. We have about 10% of our students who are low income etc. And, this Board does not appear to have significantly improved their performance on standardized tests. If they have, Weekly, please publish those numbers over the last 4, 6, and 8 years and tie them to Board member actions. I have seen MBC try to support AVID, but I have seen no other meaningful efforts. What are they?

3. Why are we so sure that the other 90% are well served? It seems incredibly odd that an amazing system for 90% could just leave the other 10% behind. Are we sure it's not the parents supporting these students? Are we sure we are using the right metrics? What metrics are we using?

4. I would like Board members who support 1+ year of academic progress for every student every year PLUS catch up for those who are behind. We could measure this using nationally accepted tests, which many districts do, multiple times per year (ERB used to be offered for writing at least a few times over a student's tenure; and NWEA was offered for math). Let's find out where our students are and meet each of them where they are at.

5. Why has this Board not pushed for a waiver application for K-6 or even special ed elementary K-6? In person is not for everyone, but an enormous amount of money (I have no idea how much) is flowing to pods in this district.

6. Although JDB currently has 2 of her 3 students in the District, two of her three students have opted for private middle school. This is concerning.

Like this comment
Posted by Joan Gross
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 1, 2020 at 12:47 pm

Joan Gross is a registered user.

Please tell me when school board candidates nights can be seen on zoom or TV?
Also when City Council Candidates nights can be seen on zoom or T.V.?

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