School board candidates participate in election forum

Written by: Cooper Aspegren

The Parent-Teacher Associations (PTA) of Gunn High School, Terman Middle School, Barron Park Elementary School and Juana Briones Elementary School held a Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) school board candidate forum on Sept. 27 at Terman from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

At the forum, a moderator asked the four candidates who are running for three vacant positions on the board a series of questions posed by district parents prior to the event and questions posed by attendees of the forum. The candidates, current Board President Camille Townsend, incumbent board member Melissa Baten Caswell, parent advocate Kenneth Dauber and educator Heidi Emberling, also received time at the beginning of the forum to make opening statements introducing their respective platforms to the forum’s audience.

The forum touched on issues involving school calendar concerns regarding the district-wide placement of finals week, increasing enrollment levels in some elementary, middle and high schools in the district, and inconsistencies between the counseling programs at Gunn and Palo Alto High School (Paly). The candidates also discussed more specific issues such as Barron Park Elementary School’s handling of its diverse student population and Juana Briones Elementary School’s high level of staff replacements in the past few years.

Candidates demonstrated a high level of disagreement over staff turnover rates, involving the percentage of staff members who retain their positions over consecutive years. Dauber argued for increasing the time of teachers’ employment as a means to achieve a greater level of scholastic stability. “We value clear communication, we value metrics, we value accountability,” Dauber said. “I think that if we can provide more professional development and that clarity of expectations, that will help raise stability.” However, Townsend argued that a high turnover can be beneficial, especially when principals change schools. “When it’s time to change, it’s important to change,” Townsend said.

In his responses to questions, Dauber highlighted a data-based approach to problem solving that has served as a major focus of his campaign for school board. “The right thing to do is collect data on that question,” Dauber said. He also discussed his goal of creating a teacher advisory counseling program at Gunn comparable to that of Paly, an aim for which he has lobbied the school board for the past year as the leader of parent group We Can Do Better Palo Alto. “Parents and students at Paly are much more satisfied with their counseling system than the parents and students at Gunn,” Dauber said. “That trend we see across many years of data.”

The other candidates did not specify a discrepancy between the counseling performance results of Gunn and Paly. “The survey that was done by the outside consultant on the guidance systems and counseling showed satisfaction and dissatisfaction with both schools,” Emberling said. “It’s very difficult to tell a school to adopt one system or another.” Townsend reiterated her opposition to the adoption of a school calendar placing finals before winter break.  “One of the problems in changing the calendar was that the school board has never set the criteria by which we should establish or change the calendar,” Townsend said.

Caswell, who voted with Townsend against the calendar change in a school board meeting vote on May 11, 2011, agreed with her, stating that there was no clear justification presented by the board supporting this calendar change. “I will say that our purpose to do the calendar change wasn’t very clear,” Caswell said.  “There were issues that popped up that were unintended consequences.”  All candidates agreed that the  board should gather student, parent and teacher input to determine whether to continue the revised calendar in the future.

The candidates discussed overenrollment in the district, which has lead district officials to consider opening another middle school or a third high school. Townsend noted that Cubberley Community Center has been listed as a possible site for another school.

The forum gave incumbent candidates Caswell and Townsend an opportunity to defend school board and superintendent council actions in the past year.  In particular, when a question was asked that attacked Superintendent Kevin Skelly for “going rogue” at meetings last spring, Caswell came to Skelly’s defense. “We have made a decision in this district because of the culture of our community to have a superintendent that is strong,” Caswell said.

The PTAs of Walter Hays Elementary School, Addison Elementary School and Duveneck Elementary School held a similar but shorter forum at Walter Hays on Oct. 1. PAUSD will hold school board elections on Nov. 6.

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