• Watch Weekly journalists discuss the Palo Alto school district's new superintendent, Don Austin, on an episode of "Behind the Headlines.”
Don Austin, the superintendent of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, has been named Palo Alto Unified's new superintendent.
The district announced Austin's appointment, which is subject to board approval, in a press release Monday morning. The Board of Education will vote on his contract at a meeting on Tuesday, May 22.
Austin has led the pre-K-12 Palos Verdes school district in Los Angeles County since August 2014. The district is similar in size and demographics to Palo Alto, with a student population of about 11,500 that is primarily white, Asian and high-income. Close to half of its students are white, 28 percent are Asian, 12 percent are Hispanic and 2 percent are African-American, according to 2016-17 data on Ed-Data. Less than 4 percent of Palos Verdes students qualify for free and reduced lunch.
Niche ranked Palos Verdes the sixth best school district in the state in 2018. (Palo Alto Unified was ranked No. 1.)
Palos Verdes has two early childhood centers, 10 elementary schools, three middle schools, two comprehensive high schools and one continuation school.
A Southern California native, Austin's educational career has centered in that region.
The first outside hire in 20 years for the Palos Verdes district, he was described by an interview panel as a "visionary" and a "mentor" who "forms relationships built on trust" and "makes things happen by asking questions," according to a 2014 Daily Breeze news article on his appointment.
The Palo Alto Unified school board was impressed by Austin's "experience, reputation for strong implementation skills, focus on mentorship, and history of building a collective sense of purpose," the press release states. He "brings enthusiasm, a spirit of teamwork, and a commitment to youth."
In a phone interview with the Weekly on Monday afternoon, Austin described himself as a "walk-around person" who works to build deep relationships with those with whom he works. He said he's eager to bring a collaborative philosophy to Palo Alto Unified, a district he has followed closely since he was a high school principal in Laguna Beach in the mid-2000s.
"I'm very big on group problem-solving," Austin told the Weekly. "My office has whiteboards installed so we don't have to walk far to pick up a pen and address and attack problems together. I'm a firm believer that more eyes usually reach a better outcome."
Austin said he's always planned to work in education. He grew up in Chula Vista, across from the high school from which he would graduate. He said he looked up to his teachers, who aside from his parents were his "biggest mentors."
He attended Southwestern College, a two-year community college in Chula Vista, from 1988 to 1990 and then Baker University, a private Christian university in Baldwin City, Kansas. He was the first in his family to attend college, according to the district. He played football competitively at both schools.
Austin holds a bachelor's degree in physical education from Baker and a doctorate in education and master of arts from Azusa Pacific University. He said he obtained teaching and administrative services credentials in California.
Austin's first job was as a middle school teacher in Moreno Valley. He then became principal of La Sierra High School in Riverside from 2000 to 2006 and principal of Laguna Beach High School from 2006 to 2011, according to his LinkedIn.
It was during his years at Laguna Beach that he took notice of Palo Alto, which was reckoning with how to better balance intense academic expectations with student well-being during a youth suicide cluster. Austin said he followed research being conducted at Stanford University on academic stress and watched, later, as Palo Alto Unified opened wellness centers at its high schools and increased counseling services to meet students' growing mental health needs.
"We have either copied or used versions of many of those approaches here in Palos Verdes," he said.
He described Palos Verdes as similar to Palo Alto: "both engaged, high-achieving communities with high expectations, both with outstanding reputations and ranking in every place that a school district can be ranked.
"But along with that, (there are) also pressures and gaps that can go unnoticed unless you take that deeper look," he said.
Prior to Palos Verdes, Austin worked as assistant superintendent of educational services for three years in the nine-campus Huntington Beach Union High School District. There, he is "credited with spearheading the implementation of Common Core State Standards and increasing student admission to state universities," a Palo Alto Unified School District press release states.
As a manager, in Palos Verdes, he said he's most proud of putting systems in place there to improve the recruitment and retention of staff. He added a monthly leadership training for all management-level staff as well as a training program for classified staff to help them overcome "internal barriers" to moving up within the district. The district now mentors elementary school staff interested in leadership positions, a path that had previously been difficult to pursue at that level because the elementary schools don't have assistant principals, he said.
"When I got here initially there were certainly some great people in place, but it wasn't the result of the systems. It was more the results of, in some cases, luck or circumstance," Austin said. "We found ways to develop our best talents so that they have internal places to advance through the organization, which I felt really strongly about."
For students, he cited a stronger emphasis on mental health as a key accomplishment as well as the addition of an online education program that had been discussed for years but not implemented until his tenure.
He said he was well-aware of concern in Palo Alto over the district's handling of student sexual violence and failure to comply with federal civil-rights law Title IX, an issue he has dealt with before but in nowhere near the same "volume" as Palo Alto.
In Palos Verdes, all of the district's goals inevitably encounter the same challenge, however, Austin said: money. Despite being similar in size to Palo Alto, Palos Verdes has a $120 million budget, compared to Palo Alto Unified's about $230 million. Unlike Palo Alto Unified, Palos Verdes is not a Basic Aid district. Basic Aid districts receive the bulk of their revenue from property taxes.
Budgetary restraints affect instructional materials, class size, staff, facilities updates and the district's overall ability to move important initiatives forward in Palos Verdes, Austin said.
"We have to go slower here in some areas," he said.
Austin said that the Palo Alto school district's focus on closing the achievement gap for low-income and minority students came out "loud and clear" in the interviewing process and will be one of his top priorities as superintendent. In Palos Verdes, he said the district regularly assesses elementary students on math and reading to be able to more quickly intervene and at earlier stages, if necessary.
What may have worked in Palos Verdes on this issue or any other may not be transferable to Palo Alto, he said.
"Although I've done things in different districts, I have no intention of coming to replicate what's already been done in places I've been. I want to come up and find the right answers that fit Palo Alto," Austin said.
Austin acknowledged some controversies that have marred the Palos Verdes district in recent years, including a group of parents who successfully sued the Palos Verdes Board of Education for violating California public-meeting law, the Brown Act. The parents alleged the board violated the Brown Act in four separate occasions during closed-sessions discussions of a solar panel contract. A judge tentatively ruled in September that two of those instances violated the law but did not require the board to change its practices, according to news reports.
In a 2016 Daily Breeze newspaper article, Austin called the lawsuit a "frivolous and personal campaign" unnecessarily costing the district and taxpayers time.
Austin would not comment in depth on the lawsuit, citing confidentiality, but noted that the court did not require the school board to take any corrective action.
"Like any engaged community there is going to be scrutiny of every action and perceived action," he said of the case.
Attorney Jeff Lewis, who represented the group of about 50 parents who filed the lawsuit, said it was unclear what role Austin played in the Brown Act violations given they happened in closed session.
"I can't tell you whether this was Don's problem or bad legal advice or the school board because of the nature of the allegation," Lewis said.
He said that the school board took an "adversarial approach," including personal attacks and opting against an opportunity to settle the case early without admitting fault.
Though the board vowed to appeal the court decision, they never did and instead paid about $21,000 in attorney fees, Lewis said.
Lewis described Austin as "professional" and "courteous," despite the controversy.
"On a personal level he seems like a bright educated fellow who intends the best for the kids," Lewis said.
When Austin arrived in Palos Verdes in 2014, controversy was already brewing over opposition to the state’s new Common Core standards. Parents who were concerned the standards would lower the quality of teaching in Palos Verdes had formed a grassroots advocacy group, Concerned PV Parents, and were rallying against their adoption.
Bill Lama, whose children graduated from and grandchildren attend the district, led the opposition effort. In an interview with the Weekly, he said he and other parents did not feel that Austin genuinely listened to their concerns when he was hired. Early on, Lama said, Austin organized a community meeting with a panel of speakers that Lama felt leaned in favor of Common Core.
Austin came in with a reputation as a "tough guy," not "wishy washy" like Palos Verdes' previous superintendent, Lama said.
The Palos Verdes district and teachers union were at odds much of this school year over a salary increase, escalating to the point that teachers refused to post grades and write letters of recommendation for seniors, according to media reports. Teachers, who said they felt undervalued by district leadership, ultimately received a cumulative 3.75 percent raise, according to the Daily Breeze.
"There is lingering dissatisfaction with the way things are going leadership-wise, and also from lots of other perspectives, in the district," Tim Coleman, the head of the teachers bargaining team, said at a board meeting in September.
Austin said negotiations were "tense" this year but noted that "the last four years of negotiations were completed in a total of nine sessions and amassed the largest cumulative ongoing raises to our bargaining units since the four-year span of 1998-2002" despite economic challenges in the region.
"We maintain ongoing open dialogue with our associations and have a history of solving problems together," he said.
Austin was in the public spotlight in 2016 when the executive director of the regional teachers union filed a complaint against him for engaging in physical intimidation and "bullying tactics" during a grievance meeting, the Daily Breeze reported.
Austin told the Weekly he disagreed with the complainant's characterization of his conduct and noted that the complaint was filed two months after the meeting by a non-district union representative.
At the time, he told the Daily Breeze that he approached the complainant at the end of the meeting to acknowledge the tension, and they shook hands in a way that he thought was amicable.
Former Palos Verdes school board President Malcolm Sharp told the Daily Breeze at the time that "being one who was responsible for hiring Don Austin, he has a stellar reputation as far as dealing with associations."
Anthony Collatos, the current president of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified school board, said in a statement released Monday that it would be "premature" to comment on Austin's appointment until it has been officially approved.
Austin was selected after a monthslong national search that started soon after former Superintendent Max McGee resigned in September. The five Board of Education board members have met several times in closed session since late April as they narrowed down their final selection.
President Ken Dauber said Austin's contract is not on the board's next regular meeting this Tuesday, May 8, because the board made its final decision to move forward with Austin late Saturday, which was not enough time to notice the item on the agenda.
Karen Hendricks, who was hired as the district's human resources director last summer, has been leading the district on an interim basis since the fall. In Monday's announcement, the board thanked Hendricks for "bringing crucial stability and support to PAUSD this school year."
Hendricks "chose not to be considered" for the superintendent position, the district release states.
Austin said he will relocate to Palo Alto with his wife. He has three children: one daughter set to graduate from high school this year, another daughter attending college and one son about to graduate from college. His oldest and youngest children plan to become teachers, he said.
Austin plans to attend the board's June 5 meeting in Palo Alto for a "meet and greet" with the Palo Alto school community.
If his contract is approved, Austin will start his new position on July 1.