Editorial: Eight is enough

This fall is the ideal time to submit school-board term-limit measure to voters

Although term limits have become the widely accepted standard for city, county and state office holders in California, approved by substantial margins by voters, most school boards have successfully resisted by declining to submit them to voters for approval.

Like opponents of tougher gun laws who never think the time is right for a public discussion about them, neither immediately after a horrific shooting, when emotions are high, nor later when the pressure for action dissipates, school boards seem to always find a reason to deny the public the chance to vote on and enact term limits.

But due to the unusual current make-up of the Palo Alto school board, with four of the five members still in their first four-year term and the fifth on track to finish her third term totaling 13 years in 2020, the school district has a rare opportunity to put a term limit measure on this November's ballot without it being personal or affecting any of its "young" members, who all say they will not seek more than two terms. The time is right — and long overdue.

The proposal to put term limits before the voters came from Todd Collins, one of the two members elected in November 2016. He believes the district would benefit from ensured turnover on the board and the predictability of when open seats would create opportunities for community members to run for office without having the nearly impossible task of defeating an incumbent.

Perhaps predictably, although unfortunately, during discussion at Tuesday night's board meeting, only third-termer Melissa Baten Caswell resisted the proposal, citing how rarely a school board member has sought a third term and the value of experience. She pointed to other school districts with trustees who had served for 20 or more years and who were highly valued resources to other board members, including those in neighboring districts.

The other three Palo Alto board members each expressed support for Collins' proposal and a belief that two terms (eight years) is an appropriate length of service, but Jennifer DiBrienza and Terry Godfrey also wondered if the estimated one-time cost of $70,000 to $100,000 to put the term-limit measure on the ballot was a justifiable expense in light of the district's current budget challenges. Board president Ken Dauber and Collins argued the one-time cost was minor compared to the importance of the reform.

Although in the last 40 years only two school board members decided to disregard the long-established but not required practice of stepping down after eight years, both occurred in the last six years — a time of unprecedented chaos and controversy within the district. In 2012, Camille Townsend ran for and won a third term and then left office at the end of 2016 after 13 years on the board, deciding against going for a fourth term. In the 2016 election, Baten Caswell successfully sought a third term. In both cases, potential candidates were likely discouraged from organizing campaigns because of the uncertainty of whether these incumbents would step down or run for another term.

So those who say that term limits aren't needed because of the self-discipline of school board members are misguided, and now is the time to adopt term limits so the turnover of board seats is no longer left to chance and subject to personal desires or ambitions.

The last time this issue arose, in 1997, was when then-school board member Don Way proposed a two-term limit be placed on the ballot for all the same reasons being advanced by Collins. Way's colleagues at the time saw no need for it given that the two-term limit had become deeply embedded into the culture of school district politics. The proposal quickly died away, as it has on many school boards throughout the state.

The reality is that incumbency is worth at least 10 to 15 percentage points in a local election, forcing interested challengers to start well behind before the campaign even begins. Without term limits, and especially in a community as rich with talent as Palo Alto, this advantage undermines the desirable rotation of our representatives and creates no predictability of opportunity.

This problem has been solved in almost every city and county in California with overwhelming voter approval (and at a cost of putting the measure on ballots) and with almost universal positive effects for our democracy.

While the cost of placing a term-limit measure on the ballot is not inconsequential, a one-time expenditure of up to $100,000, drawn from the district's substantial reserves, should not influence this decision. This district routinely spends this kind of money on items far less important than this reform. It is more than ironic that the two board members who failed to follow the unofficial two-term limit voted repeatedly, mostly in closed session, to unwisely spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal expenses fighting against the federal Office for Civil Rights.

Turnover on elected local public bodies is the lifeblood of democracy. It is what fuels new ideas, opens up access to underrepresented segments of the community and prevents administrators from becoming too close to the officials to whom they report. Our current school trustees should not put a price tag on that.


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5 people like this
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 19, 2018 at 9:49 am

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

I agree that now, while no sitting board member's plans to continue service risks being a distraction, is the time to pass a school board term limit. There is so much capable talent and eagerness to serve in Palo Alto that at a time when Palo Alto is rapidly changing it is both possible and desirable to assure regular turnover on the board.

As for the cost, it's worth it and won't impact programs because there are more than adequate reserves.

7 people like this
Posted by make your own bed
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 19, 2018 at 10:24 am

Yep, let's do this and make it a one term limit.
As this board has shown, four years is enough to monumentally mess up the district!

5 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jan 19, 2018 at 11:42 am

They could offset the cost by adding a rider to require school special taxes to be put on general election ballots rather than special election ballots. This community has shown a high degree of support for schools, and approve good proposals in general elections. Turning to costly special elections has been a cynical end run around truth and standards, as we saw in the last tax ask most recently.

This article is right on the nose, as the results in the last election couldn't be more telling, that Caswell had about as many votes as the guy who withdrew early on plus the nonserious candidate who always runs, despite her incumbent advantage. Especially since the board is now a smaller body, term limits are important. So is an ombudsman who serves and advocates for our children and is not serving under the district administration. Note: residents can bring such a proposal forward as a City of Palo Alto charter amendment to the part of the City charter that establishes the district, superintendant and board.

4 people like this
Posted by Frank Facts
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 21, 2018 at 10:47 pm

We have effective school board term limits already. They are enforced by elections.

Furthermore, the number of candidates this past election shows that there is no merit to the “chilling effect”. In fact, there were less competitors in some past elections, including cases where no election was held at all.

Finally, the Palo Alto Council shows term limits don’t work to keep professional politicians out of power. They do something else for a few years and then come back.

Let’s get back to the real issues.

8 people like this
Posted by stepping stone
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 22, 2018 at 12:08 am

Serving on a local School Board is typically seen as a stepping stone to serving on city council and, subsequently running for mayor or state senator. By imposing term limits, we'll simply speed up the rate at which our current School Board members throw their hats into the City Council race.

2 people like this
Posted by Mr Rogers
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 22, 2018 at 12:28 am

@stepping stone - it could be that way, but it's not. School board members have very rarely gone on to other offices. A handful of folks (Price, Schmid) have gone on to a term on city council; you have to go all the way back to Simitian and Kniss, 30 years ago, for people who went beyond that.

@Facts - there were two (serious) challengers for three seats last year. With two incumbents running, others didn't want to try. If Caswell hadn't run, there likely would have been two or more additional candidates, and more diversity and new blood on the board. That's exactly why term limits would be helpful.

2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 22, 2018 at 9:57 am

Unlike some political positions, like mayor of a big city, or, state or Federal representative, etc., school boards are not a jumping off place for amibitious politicians. It seems to me that if someone is willing to serve for a longer period, and, the public wants them to serve (indicated by re-electing them), why artificially limit service to 8 years? I would like to see more continuity, not less, when it comes to the budget, and setting budgetary policy. More continuity with respect to special ed and other statutory requirements.

4 people like this
Posted by Know The Facts
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 22, 2018 at 9:59 am

Schmid, Barton, Price, Kniss, Simitian are all former PAUSD School Board Members who went on to Palo Alto City Council.

Kniss and Klein both came back to Palo Alto City Council after a few years off which got them around term limits. This is standard practice in many towns with term limits on their City Councils.

Very few districts in the state and nation have term limits for school boards. The most effective school board members are active in regional and state school board committeees, are active in the school communities and know the day to day issues and challenges at their school sites.

Palo Alto’s Board of Education is not reducing it’s number of seats. It has 5 seats which is standard for school districts of its size. However, the Palo Alto Council is going down from 9 to 7 seats in the next election.

Like this comment
Posted by Mr. Rogers
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 22, 2018 at 4:19 pm

@Facts - yes, those five people did go on to serve on City Council. That's not a lot considering all the Council members over the last 30 years ;-) The only ones who went beyond City Council are Kniss and Simitian, who servd on the school board literally 30 years ago. Many, many more people came to city council or higher office through other routes than school board.

It's strange, you argue like we'd be giving something up - but we won't. Up until 5 years ago, no one on the PAUSD board served more than two terms for the last 40 years! And we did fine. The problem is that the norm has been broken, and we now need a rule to return to where we have been for decades.

2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 22, 2018 at 4:49 pm

Curmudgeon is a registered user.

In a democracy, the voters decide when to replace an elected official. Term limit advocates are elitists who do not trust those hoi polloi voters. It's that simple.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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