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School board gives Superintendent Don Austin's performance a passing grade

Original post made on Jun 21, 2023

Palo Alto Unified School District Superintendent Don Austin received a "satisfactory" performance review and another one-year extension to his contract, the Board of Education announced on Tuesday night, June 20.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, June 21, 2023, 5:37 PM

Comments (38)

Posted by Ugh
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 21, 2023 at 7:50 pm

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Extremely disappointing news.

Posted by CalAveLocal
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 21, 2023 at 8:43 pm

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Beyond disappointing. Imagine what the students who tried to have their voices heard feel right now.

Posted by Just Another Parent
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 21, 2023 at 10:35 pm

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Out with the Board

Posted by Honesty
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 21, 2023 at 11:13 pm

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I am surprised and confused that the board didn’t vote. A satisfactory performance review extends his contract, but they didn’t vote on his performance review. Can they extend his contract without a vote? This seems like the sort of thing that would need a vote.

Posted by historyguy
a resident of Los Altos
on Jun 22, 2023 at 10:11 am

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I wish the article had specified the salary he receives. If it is anything close to that of the new FHDA Chancellor there should be some accountability to the tax-paying parents who took the time to organize their opposition, imo.

Posted by Consider Your Options.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 22, 2023 at 10:54 am

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One in four superintendents in the nation have announced their intent to retire. Lot of reasons behind this: baby boomers aging out, pandemic leadership exhaustion, shrill voices in politics. See Rand report issued January 2023. This is not a local problem.

I strongly urge parents to get more involved in the nitty gritty of government problem solving. Serve on committees and the PTA. Turn your Palo Alto PTA into the powerful political organization it was in Palo Alto not that long ago. Informed parents, advocating for children, working in partnership with the district staff to identify feasible, positive solutions to problems make a huge difference--and made PAUSD great. We can do this for our kids. We have the power of the vote and our children do not. We are their voices. Understanding the complexity of the issues and engaging as a problem-solver with government is part of being a parent in a democracy.

There is more to this issue than whether or not we "like" the current Superintendent. If the district dismisses Dr. Austin, might the resulting search for a new superintendent get someone we "like" even less? I've been working with PAUSD as a parent for many years--through FIVE Superintendents. None of them was perfect. A decision has been made. How can we work toward positive change with the leadership we have in place now? How can we change the tenor of our politics to be more effective?

Finally, the decision to eliminate special ed. at choice (magnet or lottery) schools is a mistake--and perhaps illegal. Keep children together with their families in one school and maintain diversity on all of our campuses. Every child is different and all children benefit from experiencing the full range of those differences in their school community. Don't cheat the lottery school communities of this experience. It is a mistake and an unkind burden to separate families who can least afford the extra burden of separation.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 22, 2023 at 10:58 am

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Now Austin supporters are embarrassing themselves by gloating on Facebook about their so-called “win”. Everyone knew it was a done deal with this board. [Portion removed.]

Hundreds of Teachers, students, families wanted to be heard and considered. Heartbreaking comments have been made at board meetings in recent months. [Portion removed.]

How will this district help those who can’t afford to leave?

Posted by Teacher
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 22, 2023 at 11:23 am

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Disappointed but not surprised. The Board is SO detached from what is actually happening at the classroom level, and Austin is very good at self-aggrandizement. And so it goes...

Posted by Walter
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jun 22, 2023 at 11:35 am

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Extremely disappointing and sad! It is true that all of the superintendents have not been 'prefect', but others have been better. Austin does not have any true connection and care to the teachers and students. It is not good, and has brought down the school district. I cannot believe that the board showed support and extended him. They obviously are disconnected from the students, families, and teachers too.

Posted by A Person
a resident of Southgate
on Jun 22, 2023 at 11:44 am

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I am very pleased by Dr. Don Austin returning to PAUSD for the next year. He's doing a good job.

Posted by A Person
a resident of Southgate
on Jun 22, 2023 at 11:50 am

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Historyguy, the petitioners were a small cohort, and just because we pay property taxes does not mean that we get to determine who runs our school district. If people want to have veto power, they can send their kids to private school.

Posted by Silver Linings
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 22, 2023 at 12:50 pm

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@A Person,
Public schools are by their nature democratized. The involvement of families is essential; leadership is neither autocratic (or, shouldn't be) nor perfect. If you don't like democracy...

The state acknowledges the importance of community involvement in many ways. The latest, an ad from the state for "CA Community schools":
Web Link
"It's called 'shared leadership', driven by each community, in a groundbreaking setting...

"Where parents and families, students and educators, make decisions as one, creating school, and shaping futures together, based on the needs of their students, steeped in local culture. Curriculum from cybersecurity to gardening. ... . California's community schools. Reimagining public education."

The petition for PAUSD to be reasonable with the multivarible calculus class was NOT a small cohort. Do you know what it takes to get 500 signatures for anything? I support the students and I haven't seen or signed such petition but I would. When you consider that the number of students in 11th or 12th grade is about 1,000 each, and that not all take advanced math, 500 signatures is a huge show of support for what they are requesting.

Extending the contract is not the same as saying someone is perfect and every problem is solved or shouldn't be addressed, nor does it say that parents should be ignored. I do think there is a problem in our district in lack of recourse by families when something goes wrong. The only recourse to a specific problem shouldn't be to try to vote out the board or fire the super, but it happens for lack of other recourse. That can be fixed.

Fear of retaliation is real here, an old problem in this district that deserves structural change. If families don't want to be totally powerless in the future, they can create an avenue for it in the City's founding charter. When many make reasonable requests of the district, as students have over MVC, they should have some at least some leverage.

Posted by Anony Mouse
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 22, 2023 at 5:38 pm

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So, reading the fine print, this was a performance review where another year was added onto the 3 year contract that the Supe has. I'm not sure what the usual course of business is, but this constantly re-generating 3 year contract means that if we ever decided to move in another direction for Supe, he's going to get a package worth whatever is left on the contract. Current pay is at least $344k per annum (per Transparent, so a separation could cost the taxpayers close to $1,000,000. Can I get one of those employment deals? That sounds like a pretty fabulous parachute (on top of a public employee pension). Oh and he gets a car and below-market housing provided by PAUSD. Wow, which of the board members thought this was a good idea?

As for the nice folks explaining how they won and everyone should come join the process, and get involved etc. etc.: You really don't get it. It's not over. Everything is political. Just because you "won", doesn't mean we all disappear. A part of this community has been activated. Work with us to find out our concerns - we were dismissed, but we're not wrong. We just lost a political battle. The institutional problems still exist.

Posted by HPA
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 22, 2023 at 5:55 pm

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Can you please clarify some of the information provided in this article? The article states that an emergency occurred in a MIDDLE school, but eleven behavior coaches are being hired to serve ELEMENTARY schools. Why are BICs being placed where the problem didn't occur? It's my understanding that behavior coaches use Applied Behavior Therapy (correct me if I am wrong). The neurodivergent community has started to speak up against this approach. How does everyone feel about this? Do most people understand what Applied Behavior Therapy looks like or how it impacts teachers and staff? Do people favor this approach in our elementary schools? These comments are not meant as criticism of anyone, but rather to make sure that people understand what they are getting or asking for. Please understand that as usual that I am not telling anyone what to think or pushing any particular policy or outcome, but I am pointing out that it's something to think about.

Posted by Palo Alto Resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 22, 2023 at 9:57 pm

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Past superintendent contracts had one year salary pay out in event of
termination w/o cause. That's what McGee got. I can't imagine that the current contract is any different.

I'm sure some BICs provide ABA therapy if that is what a student's IEP requires. But if the parents won't accept it, the school can't/won't do it. Looking at the BIC job description, that seems like only one among many areas they are involved in.

Posted by Common Sense
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 23, 2023 at 12:31 am

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@Silver Lining
Facts matter. The CA community schools program you cite is "a holistic approach to education, particularly in low-income areas with unmet basic needs. " PAUSD is not a low-income area, and MVC is not an unmet basic need.
But thank you for clarifying that the petition is all about math and multi variable calculus for advanced students. The petitioners went through great length to attach themselves to issues that would deflect from their real goal of accelerated math, despite all the known stress that causes on campus. PAUSD has been there and we really don't want to go back to an environment that is adding more stress that impacts the mental wellness of too many of our students.

Posted by Shawn
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 23, 2023 at 7:04 am

Shawn is a registered user.

You should not be relying on a school district to discipline your child or teach him how to act. Thats on YOU , the parent , stop outsourcing parental duties.

Posted by Talltree
a resident of another community
on Jun 23, 2023 at 8:17 am

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Uh oh! In this district, passing grade is not good enough. It has to be an A+.
Sarcasm aside,
1) For those who claim retaliation and are currently and directly involved in the district as a staff, student, or parent, the extension of the superintendent's contract is a good opportunity to accumulate and bring forward evidence of your claims. Please ask the Weekly staff or one of the high school's excellent student news media publications to investigate your claims. My understanding is that some of the petitioners don't have kids in the district anymore or their kids are in private schools.
2) MVC folks please take your kids to Foothills or switch to private schools. There are kids who want to take languages/courses that are not offered in the district or get canceled because of insufficient enrollment who do that and pay for it without calling for the superintendent's removal.
3) As a parent of a kid with special ed needs myself, I sincerely hope that the board, the superintendent, and the teaching staff work with and communicate well with the special ed kids and their families to ensure that they receive the best support and resources that the district can afford. I would also hope there is some neutral party oversight of this.

Posted by Retired PAUSD Teacher
a resident of another community
on Jun 23, 2023 at 9:41 am

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I was formally reprimanded (the only reprimand in my 27-year file) for one "anonymous" parent complaint and told in no uncertain terms to change my teaching methods even though the new principal, an Austin protege, had never observed me teach, nor did he do anything to try to understand my methods. I was not allowed to meet with the complainant, because the principal claimed that the complainant feared retaliation on my part even though I had no record of such actions. The parent apparently refused to have the student moved to another class that fit their style, and the principal just fanned their objections to my teaching even though I was assigned the class at the last minute. A class I had not taught in 20 years.

These actions early in the year put me in a position of not knowing why I was in "hot water" and having to be wary of every teaching choice I made given a principal ready and willing to call me out at any time. This is what I received after 27 years of blood, sweat, and tears with stellar evaluations to back up my methods.

Mind you, it was one anonymous complaint in which the protocols were mishandled, and I was given zero due process, all with Mr. Austin's blessing.

No ongoing complaints, no dubious record regarding transparency, no flouting of the law or education code, no condescension towards students or parents, and no petition with over five hundred signatures. Gee, by the board's standards, my pay should have been doubled and my statue displayed at 25 Churchill.

Equity? Don't buy it. It does not exist in PAUSD except in newsletters.

Posted by CalAveLocal
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 23, 2023 at 9:47 am

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I don't know how many times this needs to be repeated, but the petition was not about MVC, and not just about the nightmare way of middle school math placements. It's about special ed, and retaliation, and bullying, and lack of transparency, and really refusal to listen to parents, teachers and students, too.
As far as a suggestion of taking your kid to Foothill or sending them to private school. If the big concern here is equity, this is the opposite of equity. This is going to make sure that demographics determine destiny. This is specifically blocking a child from studying a subject of interest to them (math) due to their socio-economic status.
Also, seriously, people - MVC is not some super advance class that is only useful to these that will go into theoretical math PhD programs. Like, really seriously. It's a foundational class that is an essential building block for many, many fields. Sort of like basic algebra and geometry.

Posted by Mom of 2
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 23, 2023 at 11:14 am

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This is getting a bit absurd. MVC is not foundational in the same way that basic algebra is, any more than an intro chem class is vs AP chem or even organic chem. It's difficult to find a college/university that does not require all students to demonstrate algebra proficiency via core requirements, AP credit or placement exam. The same is most certainly not true for MVC. Why? Because colleges/universities do not consider MVC to be universally foundational. If a student completes AP Chem their junior year and they want to take organic chemistry (a class considered foundational for someone interested in pursuing an MD), they must go outside the district for that.

The signers of the petition can repeat all they want that the petition is not about MVC. But that is the topic that emerges more than any other. Every single time. So while I understand that some have signed the petition for other reasons, it's hard for me to find fault with members of the public who think otherwise.

Posted by historyguy
a resident of Portola Valley
on Jun 23, 2023 at 3:46 pm

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Your faculty need a union; without one they are at the mercy of political intrigues, pressure from ONE parent (who might have their own agenda) and no recourse to administrators, some of whom may be unfamiliar with the classroom realities and local issues.

Posted by Elk
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Jun 24, 2023 at 12:23 am

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The school board, just like the city council, routinely ignores the wishes of the taxpayers who put them in office.

Posted by Retired PAUSD Teacher
a resident of another community
on Jun 24, 2023 at 10:02 am

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Taxpayers did put the board in office. Whoever funded their campaigns should be an accessible fact. If any readers know where to find such information, please help in this regard.

Posted by S. Underwood
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 24, 2023 at 11:33 am

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@Elk - They summarily ignore and strong-arm teachers too. Don't forget that side.

Posted by Retired PAUSD Teacher
a resident of another community
on Jun 25, 2023 at 6:13 pm

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Linking suicide to advanced classes seems misplaced. The common denominator in the decline of mental health is social media, yet public schools took the technology bait long ago. The mantra was “21st Century Skills”. That led to increases in “screen time” and the introduction of laptops for all students. Teachers were soon “required” to post all course materials and grades online, and stakeholders had a way to monitor, and in many cases harry each other. Prior to this shift, teachers were admonished for “showing too many videos and not teaching”. That switched to “they engage students with technology”.

Screen time at home coupled with more screen time at school means those vulnerable to “constant exposure” are bound to struggle. The CDC has documented the harms of too much screen time. Have they assessed “too much math”, “too much reading”, or “too much writing”.

Advanced classes make an easy target because you can blame parents, students, and teachers. The aforementioned have little say (unions excluded) in the process unless they have the economic means.

By contrast, if you dare to take on big tech expect a big battle. For public school leadership to question the efficacy of proliferate technology invites career and political suicide, especially in Silicon Valley. Thus the infiltration of some dubious and untested technologies. Notice Mr. Austin’s “early adoption” of AI. No top administrator wants to be seen as falling behind in technology, whether it is an effective learning tool or not. Especially if your board members receive significant donations from high tech folks. Better to blame mental health issues on something easier to eliminate, like MVC Calculus. . Hundreds of upset parents can’t match the power of tech vendors who try to stack school boards with sympathetic candidates.

Credible voices have sounded the “too much tech” alarm. Are similar voices sounding the “too much reading , writing, and arithmetic" bells?

Posted by alum2548
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 26, 2023 at 10:39 am

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Let's do some math...

There are about 590 signatures on the superintendent petition, and about 170 of the signatures are anonymous.

I count roughly 70 overlapping full names between the MVC letter and superintendent petition.

Even if ALL the anonymous signatures were because of MVC (quite unlikely), that would still be less than half of the total signatures (240/590 = 41%).

Taking into account anonymous signatures and people who only listed first names, my best estimate is that at most, 20-25% of the people who signed the petition signed because of MVC.

Many of these signees are probably concerned about other issues as well (e.g. middle school math).

Posted by Retired PAUSD Teacher
a resident of another community
on Jun 26, 2023 at 12:05 pm

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Agreed. The MVC folks make a good and visible target. That way you can dismiss all the others who have concerns under one umbrella: helicopter elitist parents that do not care about mental health. This is a typical 25 Churchill tactic that has nothing to do with equity which is just a cover.

Challenge their version of "equity" and you become a racist, and can be dismissed, or attacked as well.

Posted by A Person
a resident of Southgate
on Jun 29, 2023 at 10:10 am

A Person is a registered user.

"Facts matter. The CA community schools program you cite is "a holistic approach to education, particularly in low-income areas with unmet basic needs." PAUSD is not a low-income area, and MVC is not an unmet basic need.
But thank you for clarifying that the petition is all about math and multi variable calculus for advanced students. The petitioners went through great length to attach themselves to issues that would deflect from their real goal of accelerated math, despite all the known stress that causes on campus. PAUSD has been there and we really don't want to go back to an environment that is adding more stress that impacts the mental wellness of too many of our students." Yes to this.

Posted by A Person
a resident of Southgate
on Jun 29, 2023 at 10:18 am

A Person is a registered user.

Some parents on this thread, when looking for a reason their child is stressed, depressed, or worse, suicidal, are resisting a common denominator: their role. It would be interesting to take a survey of just the kids, who should supply their name but it would not be published or shared (and let's say it's burned as well) - about MVC. How many would respond the same as their parents? Also, anyone was allowed to sign that petition. And it was distributed on the Facebook Palo Alto Parents group. The Palo Alto Parents group name is a misnomer: it's not a community of parents of kids in PAUSD, or PAUSD alumni, it is a group of people who are parents. That's it. Anyone in the world can join if they are a parent. Yet not all of the group members are parents, and many don't live in Palo Alto.

Posted by Anony Mouse
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 29, 2023 at 7:23 pm

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I realize that this is a settled matter, but it's worth a moment to define exactly what the Board voted for. The decision making process that the board wants the Supe to use going forward is this:

- Decide a policy with minimal stakeholder input.
- Make some noises about "you were informed at a meeting you didn't attend about this".
- Attempt to wait out opposition. (they usually get tired).
- If opposition continues, appeal to "civility" and "resilience" and "be a good example to the children".
- Make noises about "we don't want complaints we want solutions".
- If opposition comes back with solutions, ignore them. (hopefully they'll get tired).
- Never address the substance of the opposition.
- Never show a willingness to revisit a decision.
- Never change course.
- Enlist elites in describing the policy action as "equity" and "doing the work". Elites love this.
- Describe opposition as "a small minority".
- And finally, we have "the opposition probably isn't even a stakeholder/doesn't live in Palo Alto."

So we see the complete cycle, at district level, and here in this thread.

Since the Board endorsed this management style, we can prepare ourselves for this pattern to remain in effect for at least another year. Brace yourselves.

Posted by Retired PAUSD Teacher
a resident of another community
on Jun 30, 2023 at 6:59 am

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Well, I guess Mr. Austin is absolved. Do you really think stakeholders, students especially, have become better off under his tenure? You can try to discredit petitioners all day long and clearly some have gone to great lengths to do so. Better to believe "the gang of 6" and some "objective" principals.

Of course, a large part of a child's mental health lands on the parent's doorstep, but students wanted the MVC course and there were enough to fill it on two campuses. If it is so detrimental to their mental health, why didn't Mr. Austin just say so? Is there a mental health crisis in the schools that do offer the course that can be attributed to MVC?

Why all the smoke and mirrors? It seems to be Mr. Austin’s modus operandi, and it isn't just regarding math. It is disingenuous to lay all the dissatisfaction with Mr. Austin on the MVC group, but one must suppose it is an effective tactic.

Posted by Honesty
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 30, 2023 at 8:17 am

Honesty is a registered user.

@ Anony Mouse — Yes, although there was no vote though. The board never voted on the superintendent’s contract or its extension.

Posted by D. in Barron Park
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 30, 2023 at 1:44 pm

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Consensus doesn't mean that the entire board gave him a satisfactory!

Posted by SAHM
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 30, 2023 at 6:18 pm

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I raised three children here since and have been involved in PTA and school volunteering and have seen the outspoken parents. I have communicated several times with Don Austin both in person and emails with issues and think he is the best superintendent we have experienced. He listens and responds promptly and is much better than all the School Board members we have experienced, of which many I have spoken to throughout the years.

Kevin Skelly (from 2008-15) was a figurehead who allowed himself to be bullied. I recall at a meeting he asked people to raise their hands if they disfavored Everyday Math and the staff did not allow it; he allowed the staff to override him! He never did anything for PAUSD, he was simply a figurehead. I remember him stopping by our PTA meeting, saying nothing of substance, he was not a leader, he was more of a follower. Skelly proceeded onward to be the San Mateo School District superintendent from 2015 until his retirement in 2022.

Then there was Max McGee, whose philosophy was that the parents were too pushy and blamed them for student stress. He said at a group meeting that his son is happy as a plumber and what is wrong with that? The only thing he did was set up a research program and hypocritically for the driven students, not the lower end that he claimed to support. Paly principal, Kim Diorio allowed the student who sexually assaulted a person to continue attending Paly classes on his watch.

Leaders can't please everyone and will make some unpopular decisions. If parents and students want a leader they can push around, I suggest looking up the definition in a dictionary. For those who complain about Austin, there are others who agree with his decisions. And maybe we don't agree with all of his decisions, but at least he is doing something while the other two did basically nothing. He has more experience in running a school district than we do. There are likely politics and factors that we do not know about when he makes decisions.

Posted by Anony Mouse
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 2, 2023 at 11:45 am

Anony Mouse is a registered user.

Thanks @SAHM for your perspective. Since this is a highly political environment, I don't think you're going to get the capitulation you seek - or the opinion change. The fact is, your side won. Isn't that enough? It's politics, so the side that "lost" will lick their wounds and move on. There is one huge lesson from all this - it's always political. Our system is contentious, but that's ok. A personnel policy has been chosen, we'll see how it shakes out. I'm glad you had such an amazing experience with the current supe, I'd love to know your secrets, because many have had a different experience. There will be more dissent, and that's ok too. It's not "uncivil" to dissent in a democracy, so be ready for that. The best policies are hammered out in the open, through sometimes painful argument. Our district needs to be unafraid to be transparent, unafraid to engage with dissenters. That is the key to the long-term health of this democratic institution.

Posted by Retired PAUSD Teacher
a resident of another community
on Jul 3, 2023 at 8:57 am

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From dissent and discussion come policies that tend to be more effective because you get more perspective and more "buy in". Back-room dealings and dismissal of alternative voices leaves a bad taste that doesn't readily go away. Leadership doesn't need to be a zero-sum game where victory is declared by one side. No one really wins if trampling on the opposition becomes the norm.

The word "community" gets tossed around quite a bit in PAUSD. It's worth trying to build one in the long run, which means all reasonable voices need to be heard and validated. Democracy moves slowly. As Churchill once said, "Democracy is the worst form of government out there, except for all the rest".

Posted by Anony Mouse
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jul 9, 2023 at 1:23 pm

Anony Mouse is a registered user.

Thanks @retired teacher. I think you expressed my sentiments a little more clearly. I think everyone in the community needs to understand the terrain. In fact, zero-sum victory is the game now. The board has endorsed this style. If you are part of a group that has "lost" any sort of policy battle, keep going. Don't stop. Keep pushing. It's only a "loss" when you are silent, when you give up. They'll call you various names, but keep going. Organize, engage and keep going. That's really the lesson of Churchill- who you so aptly quoted.

Remember, the Board and everyone at PAUSD works for YOU the people.

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