Ask Todd Collins for his thoughts on just about any issue facing the Palo Alto school district, and he'll bring you back to the budget.
At board meetings, in candidate forums and in the community, Collins, an investment manager, has become a persistent voice of concern about the district's approach to addressing its $4.2 million deficit. A series of budget measures the board approved last week -- spending down reserves, using bond funds to pay for technology upgrades and shifting around other revenue sources -- fall short in addressing what he sees as a structural deficit, he has argued.
If the district does not change course, it will be difficult to make progress on many priorities, from keeping class sizes down to improving special-education services, Collins has said. And some priorities are already at risk, he believes: He said at the first debate of the election season that there is simply no money in the budget to pay for additional innovative programs.
Collins, a longtime schools volunteer who has worked in technology, management consulting, business analysis and private investment, approaches school issues with a penchant for pragmatic problem solving and data crunching.
When the district was slow to provide the board with data on what he thought it most needed to consider -- the five-year, cumulative deficit the district faces based on different revenue-growth scenarios and teacher raises -- Collins did the calculations himself and handed copies to the board at an August retreat.
"We need to face the hard choices and discuss them openly," he told the board, "not just kick the can down the road."
Another key data point for the district, Collins said in an endorsement interview with the Weekly, is that the "underlying driver" for the deficit was not an error in forecasting property-tax revenue, but the board's approval in May of the first-ever multi-year teachers contract. Collins said he would have voted against the contract had he been on the board at the time.
"The teachers contract, both in terms of its size and in guaranteeing the second year of raises in advance, which we had never done before, put us in a situation where anything going wrong would have precipitated a shortfall and the kind of situation we're in right now," he said.
"As someone said, it's like you spent every dollar you had on your new house but you didn't figure the water heater might break or the roof might leak or something else might go wrong, and then what do you know -- it does," he said. "The problem isn't that your roof leaked; the problem is that you were at the edge already."
In terms of cuts, Collins said he would prioritize those at the district office and in schools' administrative positions. He supports rolling back all or part of the most recent raise provided to non-represented senior administrators and cutting the district's full-time communications coordinator position, two proposals made by board member Ken Dauber last week but unsupported by the rest of the board.
Collins has, however, made a more unusual proposal for how the district can better attract and retain teachers moving forward: to use district land to build teacher housing that would be managed by a third party.
Aside from budgetary issues, Collins also demonstrated his slant toward data analysis as chair of the district's Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC) elementary subcommittee last fall. In the role, he gave a 61-slide presentation to the board, arguing with detailed data, tables and maps that it was time to change the district's long-held narrative that Palo Alto needs a 13th elementary school.
It was also in that capacity that Collins showed his belief in candid communication and a proactive approach -- "If action is required, it's better to take it," he has said.
When he disagreed with the data analysis and recommendations presented by fellow enrollment-committee members who were focused on secondary enrollment, he didn't hesitate to publicly challenge their findings at a board meeting. He also sent board members a 16-page critique of their work, posted online an open letter to the board that voiced concern "about issues that have come to light about the EMAC's composition, analysis, and impartiality" and penned a guest opinion piece in this newspaper calling for a "re-set" of the committee's work.
He felt strongly that proper process had not been followed when, unbeknownst to the broader enrollment committee as well as the school board, a subset of the committee worked with Superintendent Max McGee and others to apply for private funding to open an alternative middle and high school in Palo Alto.
"You need a good process to get to a good outcome, particularly in a public agency like this," Collins told the Weekly, "because we want the community and all the stakeholders to buy into what comes out of those committees."
"I think as a result of that process, people became uncomfortable working with each other, which is very unfortunate in a community as small and tightly knit as ours," he added. "One of my very very strong beliefs is that we're all on the same side of the table here. ... Anything that makes people feel uncomfortable, like they don't want to participate, probably should have been done differently."
One of his campaign promises is to ensure the board and the district are more transparent.
"If you look at the 10-year history of the district ... there's been self-inflicted wound after self-inflicted wound, controversy after scandal and it doesn't need to be that way," he said. "I think one of the steps is to acknowledge that we're not perfect, address the imperfections as soon as they come up and move on to the next thing before they become a scandal and a problem."
For example, he supports the practice of public negotiations with the teachers union. Had contract negotiations been open to the public throughout the process, the district could have solicited feedback that would have helped surface the risk of a three-year contract, he said.
He also championed transparency in 2012, when serving on a citizens committee -- the Strong Schools Bond Citizens' Oversight Committee -- whose foresight to stop issuing a particular kind of bond ultimately saved the district $800 million.
The committee, which monitors the $378 million bond voters passed in 2008 to support facilities improvements, realized that Palo Alto Unified, like many other California school districts, planned to issue again a particular kind of bond that would result in the district paying years of compounded interest. So Collins founded a separate citizens committee and with its 12 members wrote an open letter urging the board to raise the tax rate. The board took the group's advice, just before other school districts' use of capital-appreciation bonds became a subject of public controversy and the state legislature eventually cracked down on the practice, passing strict controls on issuing the bonds in the future.
Like so many other families, Collins, his wife and three children moved to Palo Alto for the schools. It wasn't for the academic reputation, however, but its special-education services that drew them. Their severely autistic son attended Barron Park Elementary School for several years before moving to the Morgan Autism Center in San Jose.
While the Collinses' experience with special education has been positive, he said he often hears from other parents who struggle to access services and feel uninformed and unsupported. Further, they allege the process is more adversarial than collaborative -- even "rigged" against families, Collins said.
"When you're in Palo Alto and you know your district has resources and that's part of the reason why you're here, to feel like you may not get the things that you need and that you're going to have to fight really hard to get them, that's a very uncomfortable feeling," he said. "We need to address that."
While more communication and transparency are key to changing this -- including something as simple as creating an introductory handbook on how to navigate services and where to go for support for new special-education parents -- the shift will inevitably require money, Collins said.
The district's full-inclusion model, which places special-education students in general-education classrooms, while "absolutely the right direction" to go, is expensive, Collins noted. High-quality aides are necessary, but costly and hard to come by in a regional shortage. Comprehensive, effective teacher training is also critical. Not to mention, the board is expecting to receive this month a set of recommendations from a group of Harvard University researchers commissioned to take a hard look at the district's special-education services -- recommendations that will require funding.
Collins is back to the budget. It's not that the district has to maintain its investment in special education but that it needs to spend even more to make a real difference.
"We need to get our budget under control so we can put our resources where they're really most needed," he said.
Todd Collins: fast facts
• Age: 55
• Education: bachelor's and MBA, Harvard University
• Occupation: investment manager
• Family members: Wife Elisabeth; daughters Claire and Emily; son Harry
• Has lived in Palo Alto for 12 years
• Favorite quote: "Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm." - Winston Churchill
• Favorite high school class: calculus, creative writing
• Proudest moment: My son, Harry, who is autistic, learning to ride a two-wheeler at age 9, something we expected he would never do.
• Best piece of advice you were ever given: From an old friend, "You should think about moving to Palo Alto."
• Campaign website: toddcollins.org
In his own words: Where Todd Collins stands
1. Do you support opening a new elementary, middle and/or high school?
No, I don't support new standalone schools. Enrollment is declining and our budget is in deficit, so building new schools now doesn't make sense. For high schools, we can create "schools within a school" or even a satellite facility at 25 Churchill Ave. to nurture innovative programs and smaller learning communities.
2. What changes do you propose for the district's approach to administrative compensation?
The "me too" policy for most if not all administrators does not make sense and should be replaced with an approach based on cost-of-living increases, with adjustments based on individual performance.
3. What is your vision for the future of Cubberley Community Center?
Given our enrollment trends, we won't need a school at Cubberley for up to 20 years. So the city can create something that benefits everyone, such as a modern multi-generational community center. Beyond 20 years we don't know, and we need to keep some option for school expansion there.
4. Should public hearings be held on the terms of union contracts during the negotiation process?
The union contracts are by far our biggest, and the current process does not sunlight the terms until the both sides have already agreed. We need a way to inform the community and give the board feedback to avoid mistakes like those made with the current contracts.
5. How can the district better monitor and ensure implementation of its homework policy?
We should not have policies we don't enforce -- it mis-sets the expectations of students, teachers and the community. For the homework policy, Schoology will eventually provide a way to monitor; until then, a simpler spreadsheet-based tracking and sample audit approach would help get us started.
6. What is the best way to expand access and capacity of the district's choice programs?
For elementary schools, we should create choice opportunities in the north and west sides of town, to limit traffic impact and provide wider access. For secondary schools, we should look to expand popular current programs, both at their current campuses and potentially at others.
7. What are your top three ideas for improving the district's fiscal health?
First, we need to fix our deficit by cutting administrative expenses, eliminating some recently added positions and streamlining outdated systems. Longer term, we need to attract teachers without breaking the bank -- a great idea is to create teacher housing on underused school district property, as other communities have done.
8. What should the district do to identify and deal with (including firing, if necessary) under-performing teachers?
The best approach to improving anyone's performance is to manage and develop them. Teacher assessment can be improved, with more involvement of principals. The new high school student surveys can be a very helpful tool for identifying areas of weakness and assessing whether things are improving.
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 Public Records Act is clear: what can be public, should be public, so long as privacy rights are protected. For more private communication, we can talk in person or pick up the phone. If the public's business is done from a private email account, that is also public information.
10. Should the district rename Terman and Jordan middle schools?
There is a legitimate concern about names of public and private buildings nationwide. The board has set up a committee to examine this, a diverse group that, among other things, is surveying the community on naming options. I'm looking to forward to hearing what they find.