What sets Stacey Ashlund apart from the other five candidates running for a seat on the Board of Education?
"One word: experience," she says.
Ashlund has volunteered in many education-related capacities, including with the Community Advisory Committee, a parent advocacy group for special-education students in the Palo Alto school district; the county-level Special Education Local Plan Area Community Advisory Committee; the Palo Alto Council of PTAs; education foundation Partners in Education; on her two children's school site councils; as a Girl Scout troop leader; and with nonprofit Peninsula College Fund, which supports low-income first-generation college students.
She also served on the city's Parks and Recreation Commission from 2011 to 2015 and as a Democratic delegate representing Assembly District 24 during the same time period.
Her most formative experience, arguably, has been as a special-education advocate for her own children and for other parents navigating a complex, sometimes challenging system.
Ashlund prefers the term "inclusion" to "special education." The word was still foreign in the local education world when she started advocating for her son, who was born deaf and received a cochlear implant on his first birthday. She looked to the county for early-intervention services, started pouring through legal books to educate herself and left her career as a usability engineer to support her son. When he approached kindergarten age and she suggested the idea of "full inclusion" to the school district — incorporating her son into a mainstream classroom — "it was like (speaking) a foreign language" to staff, Ashlund said.
Special education has made considerable progress since then, she said, with inclusion now the norm across the district, and she would choose Palo Alto Unified again for her son. But she's spent years advising special-education parents who don't have the same resources or privilege as her family on how to fight for the services their children need. She's critical of the district's ballooning legal expenses in relation to the special-education budget and believes that spending needs to be more balanced between legal and in-classroom expenditures.
"Litigating against parents is the balance that disturbs me," Ashlund said in an endorsement interview with the Weekly. "I'm finding that parents are feeling less supported by hiring of legal staff at the district office than ever before, but the message we've been (hearing) from 25 Churchill is the opposite of that."
Attorneys, in Ashlund's opinion, "turn the conversation adversarial."
"This whole dynamic can be extremely difficult and daunting for many parents. Parents with limited resources (time, money, education, as well as the language and personality to navigate this world) are at a disadvantage, and therefore so are their children," she said. "Oftentimes the process does work very well — but many times the parent remains unsure if they are doing the right thing, doing enough, or if their child will be OK."
Ashlund opposes the hiring of a general counsel (she's not convinced an in-house attorney will cut down on legal expenses) and said that district staff already have the know-how to address legal issues.
Ashlund said she felt compelled to run for a seat on the board because of "heartbreaking" divisions she's seen deepen in the school community, particularly in the wake of a contentious debate over renaming a middle school for a Japanese-American alumnus. If elected, she hopes to bring a unifying, positive voice to the school board. She points to her special-education advocacy as evidence of her ability to promote consensus.
She also sees a need for internal healing among administrators and teachers. She's concerned the high rate of turnover in recent years, with an almost entirely new cabinet at the top of the district, is indicative of a culture of "no redemption." This culture, she said, is set from the top: the school board.
"I don't see our past behavior as accountability. I've seen it as blame," Ashlund said at a forum hosted by the teachers' union in August. "I feel the board has made it very clear that the administration was at fault and needs to be ... fired and replaced."
Just as parents and teachers are responsible for supporting children in their success, the board has a responsibility to support staff, she said.
Ashlund, who has been endorsed by the teachers union, includes advocating on behalf of teachers as one of her three top campaign priorities. She doesn't believe union negotiations should be open to the public, stating that she trusts teachers to be reasonable in asking for what they need. If elected, she would support the approval of an annual cost-of-living salary increase for staff and vote to allocate funding for a county-led workforce housing proposal. She would advocate for "fully supporting teachers, including providing coverage for up-to-date, personalized professional development, mentorship (and) classroom support," her campaign website states.
Ashlund's other campaign goals are student success and district accountability. She aims to broaden the district's definition of achievement to be more "quantitative," less about grade point averages, AP scores and community-service hours. She advocates for allocating more resources to support students affected by the achievement gap — including students of color, students with learning disabilities and mental health challenges. Those resources would better prepare middle school students for the rigors of high school and also go toward hiring more guidance and college-and-career counselors at the high schools.
She refers back to the importance of the Developmental Assets, 41 community values developed in the wake of a teen suicide cluster in Palo Alto.
The Developmental Assets state that "your social emotional health and well-being is just as important and essential to your academic achievement," Ashlund said. "They rely on each other."
Ashlund wants to promote "mutual accountability" between the school board and the district staff at all levels, which she believes will lead to broader healing on issues that have divided the community in recent years. If elected, she plans to prioritize increased communication and support between the district office and schools.
"We have to work together; we have to collaborate; we have to have an ounce of forgiveness," she said.
About Stacey Ashlund
• Age: 55
• Occupation: User-experience research consultant
• Education: Bachelor's in math and computer science from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; master's in computer science from Virginia Tech
• Family members: Two teens, supportive partner and unnamed pet
• I've lived in Palo Alto for: 26 years
• My favorite high school class: Ballet
• My favorite quote: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." — Margaret Mead
• My proudest moment: I'm grateful to have had many proud moments in my life — a recent example is successfully launching my eldest off to college and watching my high school student shine.
• Campaign website: stacey2018.com
Read more about this year's Palo Alto Board of Education candidates here.
For complete 2018 election information, check out the Palo Alto voters' guide.