Incumbent Heidi Emberling first ran for a seat on the school board four years ago, she said, to shift what she saw as an imbalance between the district's attention to students' academic achievement and their social and emotional well-being.
After she was elected, she successfully pushed to add social-emotional health as a fifth "pillar" to the district's Strategic Plan in 2013. She also points to other work accomplished during her tenure: new policies on bullying and sexual harassment; more mental health services and support at the high schools; full-day kindergarten for all students in the district.
She's now running for a second term in the hope that she will have the chance to take this progress to the next level.
In a district where schools often operate like autonomous entities, Emberling has been a proponent for developing more consistent districtwide practices. She served on the board's policy-review committee in the wake of several federal discrimination investigations of the district, when the group was tasked with crafting a comprehensive bullying policy to establish uniform procedures.
This commitment extends today to getting all of the district's schools, from elementary through high school, to use more uniform social-emotional learning curricula, which Emberling pushed for this year.
During a February board discussion of a staff proposal to create a committee focused broadly on providing more support for students, Emberling pointed to research indicating that social-emotional programs at the schools are often limited in that "they're focused too narrowly in a piecemeal and unsystematic way on specific variables."
"We do bullying prevention. We do substance abuse. We do sex ed. We look at delinquency," she said. "We do physical health and then mental health.
"We compartmentalize and we look at very narrow, very specific variables as opposed to a social-emotional learning curriculum that guides our students' development over time. For me, this is an opportunity to look at this in a big way across our district," she said.
Emberling said in an interview that she learned in her first term that change in a district with such a strong culture of school-based decision-making cannot be made totally from the top down. The board needs to implement policy "and then provide choice so that each school can grow their own program," she said. She supports, for example, identifying a handful of evidence-based social-emotional learning curricula and then allowing each school to choose one that works best for its students.
Along those lines, Emberling has long advocated for Gunn High School to adopt a teacher-advisory counseling model. That finally quietly happened this year, but it required a more organic process: Over time, Gunn stakeholders created their own version of the teacher-advisory model. (She said the board's role in cases like this is to prioritize and commit resources to the school that's making the change.)
This spring, Emberling vocally supported a proposal to switch Palo Alto's kindergarten classes to a full-day model, pointing to its benefits for all children but especially low-income and minority students, who sometimes start their first year in the district already academically behind their peers.
When it comes to Emberling acting on one of her campaign priorities, "innovation in teaching and learning," last week she was the sole board member to support exploring a new K-8 school in Palo Alto. She also backed a proposal this January to create a committee that, among other efforts, would look into opening a new secondary school in Palo Alto. (She was in the minority on that vote.)
As for funding these innovative initiatives, Emberling is confident that the district will be able to invest in such programs, even given the district's $4.2 million budget deficit. Last week, Emberling and three of her board colleagues backed a series of measures that will begin to mitigate the deficit this year. The district now has the "great opportunity," she said at the Sept. 27 board meeting, to evaluate the $13 million in programs, services and positions the district has added over the last four years to find places to cuts in the 2017-18 budget.
Emberling has consistently defended the decision to negotiate a multi-year teacher's contract for the first time in district history. At an August board meeting, she called the contracts an "innovation" that has helped teachers and staff plan ahead rather than receive retroactive raises, as they have in the last few years.
But if she had known in May, when she voted to approve the new contract, what the district learned in July about its property-tax revenue, she said she would have negotiated a lower compensation increase for teachers.
She's also supportive of changing the district's practice of automatically giving non-unionized administrators, which includes district leadership as well as principals, the same pay raise as negotiated with the teachers union. But she's firmly against a proposal to roll back raises provided to that group this year. Principals are the "leaders of the leaders" and, in her eyes, cutting their salaries would affect classroom life just as much as cutting the teachers'.
As a former Emmy-nominated journalist, Emberling said transparency remains a top value for her. She supports holding regular public hearings throughout the negotiations process between the district and the teachers union, a change she would push for if re-elected. However, she added, she would want to hear reasons why the union and district's negotiations team feel sessions should be closed. Without knowing those reasons, she said she leans toward a "balance of public hearings and closed sessions."
Emberling also supported a recent policy proposal to require board members to only use district email accounts, rather than private ones, to conduct district business (a policy a majority of her colleagues decided to put on hold) and said she is pushing the district to more consistently publish letters community members send to the board on agendized topics (currently a "hit or miss" practice, she said).
Last year, she voted in a 3-2 majority to bring back the district's full-time communications coordinator position, stating, "I think we have some serious communications concerns and my hope would be that someone who has been trained in communications could help us improve our systems across the district." Keeping this position will likely be up for discussion again this year given the district's budget deficit.
One of problems she's noticed in her tenure is a lack of steady, reliable parent feedback to the board on the issues. She has proposed several times that Palo Alto Unified create a diverse standing "parent advisory group," as other Bay Area districts have done, with representatives from groups such as special-education parents to Latino and African-American parents.
As one of two incumbents in the race, Emberling looks back thoughtfully on some of the more controversial actions the board has taken over the last four years. In June 2014, Emberling voted to pay the school district's law firm more than $50,000 to research and prepare a resolution that strongly criticized the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which was investigating violations at the district's middle and high schools, and committed the district to a national lobbying effort to reform the federal agency.
In hindsight, Emberling told the Weekly that this resolution -- "written in anger in a time where the district felt under siege" -- is today "completely out of date" and unproductive.
She thinks the board should pen a new letter to the federal agency to outline what has become a "more collaborative" relationship.
Emberling, now a parent educator and child development specialist at a local family resource center in downtown Palo Alto, has a history as a school volunteer and leader of her children's school PTA and site council. In the 2012 election, she narrowly beat out then-challenger Ken Dauber for a seat on the board with 24 percent of the vote.
Emberling said she's shed the naiveté of her first term and has figured out how to effect change in a district where true progress is often slow to come to pass.
"It's really been a learning curve for me these last four years to figure out how to move the big ship," she said. "But I finally feel like I'm confident enough about how things change here that I can pull the right levers to make things happen."
Heidi Emberling: fast facts
• Age: 49
• Education: bachelor's in language studies from UC Santa Cruz; master's in journalism from UC Berkeley; master's in education from SFSU
• Current occupation: parent educator, child development specialist at Parents Place
• Family members: Husband Brian, son Geordie (attends Gunn High School), daughter Sarah (attends Terman Middle School)
• Has lived in Palo Alto for 11 years
• Favorite quote: "We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do." -- Mahatma Gandhi
• Favorite class in high school: Marine biology, theater arts
• Proudest moment: I'm proud that student social and emotional health is now discussed at the board level alongside academic achievement and excellence.
• Best piece of advice you were ever given: "Listen with kindness to community feedback, for you know not the burden they carry."
• Campaign website: heidiemberling.nationbuilder.com
In her own words: Where Heidi Emberling stands
1. Do you support opening a new elementary, middle and/or high school?
The 10-year enrollment data shows we have added enough students to support a new school. Palo Alto values its smaller neighborhood schools, and I support the research showing an ideal elementary school is 350 to 450 students and an ideal middle school is 700 to 900. I want to keep our fields clear of portables and preserve our flex spaces for art, music and science labs.
2. What changes do you propose for the district's approach to administrative compensation?
I believe we need a new structure for administrative compensation. Our principals are the instructional leads at our schools. We have to compensate competitively to attract and retain the strongest leaders. We also have to provide multiple measures of evaluation and constructive feedback. The goal is high-quality teaching and learning throughout our district that promotes positive student outcomes.
3. What is your vision for the future of Cubberley Community Center?
Cubberley must be developed jointly between the city and school district, providing for both community and school needs. We can design and build joint-use facilities that are flexible for future needs, including fields, a gym, a theater and a pool. This district office should be re-located to Cubberley, to repurpose the current space for student learning.
4. Should public hearings be held on the terms of union contracts during the negotiation process?
To ensure that students stay at the forefront of our negotiations, public hearings should be regularly held during the negotiations process. We do interests-based negotiations and there are always trade-offs between investments in programs and compensation. Community members should be able to learn more about how we ensure our school district remains a "destination district" for our employees and families.
5. How can the district better monitor and ensure implementation of its homework policy?
We've implemented a pilot of student surveys at the end of each high school course in order to provide valuable feedback to teachers about student experiences. I would strongly advocate continuing this program. We should continue our focus on consistent, high-quality teaching and learning, ensuring that homework is meaningful and aligned with course goals.
6. What is the best way to expand access and capacity of the district's choice programs?
We have over-subscribed choice programs: Ohlone, Spanish/Mandarin immersion and Connections at JLS. We could open up another elementary or K-8 school option, or we can begin to provide more project-based, hands-on learning environments and language learning options in every classroom across the district.
7. What are your top three ideas for improving the district's fiscal health?
We need to develop systems to more accurately predict revenues, including exemptions. We need to analyze and evaluate the $13 million we've spent over the past four years, particularly in the district office. And we must adequately invest in our teachers, making cuts away from the classroom.
8. What should the district do to identify and deal with (including firing, if necessary) under-performing teachers?
Teacher evaluation is an important feedback tool -- our principals need to be strong and constructive evaluators. We need to strengthen our due-process guidelines for teacher-improvement plans. And we need to ensure that our new teachers receive the mentoring and support needed to succeed in the classroom.
9. If a member of the public emails a board member about a district matter, should it be made public (as long as it doesn't violate student privacy)? And if it is sent to a board member's private email account?
The Board of Education should have a system that mirrors the City of Palo Alto's as it pertains to public input and comment. It is clearly posted on the city's web page that all communications to council members are made public. Public communications to the board should be included in the following board packet.
10. Should the district rename Terman and Jordan middle schools?
Names matter. I look forward to the recommendations of the Renaming Schools Advisory Committee, which is gathering community input and deliberating about how to honor our students and school district. Our school names should reflect the values of our community, including tolerance of diversity and a belief that every student must feel safe and welcomed at school.