A major issue that's emerged is the proper balance between centralized rule-making and school-based decision-making — the latter a long-dominant culture holding that authority and accountability should stay as close to the classroom as possible.
Most urgently, that concern has arisen with respect to high school guidance counseling — an area in which Palo Alto's two high schools dramatically differ in the way they deliver services.
One candidate, software engineer Ken Dauber, has argued that, by this fall, Gunn High School should have adopted what he says is a clearly superior counseling model used at Palo Alto High School, which uses 40 "teacher-advisers" to augment a small counseling staff.
The other three candidates say they're willing to allow time for an internal Gunn committee to recommend reforms to its traditional counseling system — which in the past has not used teacher-advisers — so long as students at both high schools get "comparable services."
Principals from both Gunn and Paly are due to present progress reports on their counseling systems to the Board of Education next Tuesday, Oct. 9. Board members have said they'd like to see a new system launched at Gunn by next fall in which students would have contact with more adults.
Four candidates are competing in the Nov. 6 election for three available spots on the board.
Besides Dauber, they include another challenger, parent educator Heidi Emberling, as well as incumbents Melissa Baten Caswell and Camille Townsend.
The high-performing K-12 Palo Alto school district, with an enrollment of 12,268, is in the midst of a $378 million facilities-bond-construction program to modernize and expand its 17 campuses to keep pace with rising enrollment.
District officials are currently searching for a location to open a fourth middle school, and there's general agreement that a 13th elementary school will be needed in the next five years, assuming enrollment trends continue.
The district also is in the midst of negotiating with the City of Palo Alto over the fate of the district-owned Cubberley High School campus, which closed in 1979 due to declining enrollment and has operated as a community center under long-term lease with the city.
All candidates cite facilities decisions as one of the top concerns for the board, and there is no clear disagreement among them on that issue.
But Dauber has been more critical of the district than Emberling, saying greater sophistication with data could have yielded more certainty about enrollment projections and that shortage of good data means the district has failed to "engage in a full partnership with the city over Cubberley."
Following a devastating string of Palo Alto student deaths by suicide in 2009 and 2010, the district adopted programs to boost the social-emotional health of students, including use of the wellness framework Developmental Assets, participation in the community coalition Project Safety Net and individual school initiatives to increase "student connectedness."
Dauber was an early critic of the pace of change, calling last year for the board to replace Superintendent Kevin Skelly who, Dauber argued, was not squarely addressing issues of academic stress that he believes can contribute to suicide.
Dauber and members of a group he co-founded, We Can Do Better Palo Alto, began lobbying the board for greater attention to homework loads and test scheduling as well as for a change in the academic calendar so that the first semester ends before the December holidays.
The long-debated calendar shift — with emotional voices on both sides — was approved in a 3-2 board vote last year, with both Caswell and Townsend opposing the change.
While Dauber considers the new calendar a positive step in relieving student stress, Emberling is critical of the district's handling of the decision process, saying the board should have better explained why it was considering the controversial change. She says the potential negative effects of the new calendar should be carefully measured.
Following recommendations of 24-member parent-teacher Homework Committee this past May, the district adopted a new homework policy, outlining specific amounts of time kids should be spending on homework.
Implementation of the new homework policy is among the district's top-priority goals for this school year.
Dauber, who served on the Homework Committee, said he was pleased with the result but believes the district has not moved quickly enough on another stress-point — lack of coordination on the scheduling of tests and project deadlines.
He has called on the district to require teachers immediately to begin using the technology tool Schoology to post assignments and deadlines.
Disagreement over the proper pace of Schoology implementation again goes to the balance between central management and site-based decision-making, with the other candidates arguing that top-down orders are less likely to stick in the long run.
"I love online resources, and you do need some push from the top to make things happen," Townsend said.
"At the same time, it's got to be respectful," she said.
"We've asked teachers to implement various technologies that did not work well in the past, so you want to make sure your technology works and you offer a lot of training before you ask everybody to adopt it."
In a recent candidates' forum, Townsend, Caswell and Emberling said they like what they've seen of Schoology but that implementation would have more staying power if teachers are given time for training and allowed to grow the program from the bottom.
"If we have something that can produce benefit for students ... we should be requiring our schools to do the right thing and adopt the practice system-wide," he said.
The idea of "site-based decision-making" was endorsed in Palo Alto following a 1992 parent-teacher task force on the subject.
Even before that, Palo Alto schools had a long history of deferring to principals on many decisions — a practice common among affluent, suburban districts, according to former Palo Alto Superintendent Jim Brown, who convened the 1992 Task Force on Site based Decision-Making.
"It's not unique to Palo Alto," said Brown, who was a superintendent in five California districts over 26 years and now works as a consultant.
"The idea is you'll get a better school system if you allow this degree of autonomy. It's a more empowering culture, and you're more likely to encourage innovation and creativity."
But Dauber says it's time to realize site-based decision-making has gone too far.
"We've emphasized site-based control at the expense of the idea that every child has a right to equal access to services," he said.