News

School board race expands with two newcomers, one incumbent

Jennifer DiBrienza to seek second term; two parents also to run for open seats

Palo Alto school board member Jennifer DiBrienza, left, and lawyer Karna Nisewaner, right, are among the four candidates running for a spot on the Board of Education this fall. Courtesy photos.

The Palo Alto Unified school board race is heating up, with two additional newcomers in the running and an incumbent announcing her reelection bid.

Jennifer DiBrienza, who is nearing the end of her first term on the Board of Education, confirmed she plans to seek a second term. Board President Todd Collins, also in his first term, has pulled papers for the race but said he's not yet decided whether he will run.

The two newcomers are parents Karna Nisewaner, a lawyer, and Jesse Ladomirak, who owns Teevan, a housing restoration company in San Francisco.

Katie Causey, a Palo Alto Unified graduate, also announced in July that she's running for a seat on the five-member board.

Three seats will be up for grabs in November when the terms of board Collins, DiBrienza and Melissa Baten Caswell expire. Baten Caswell is seeking a seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Education.

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Below is information about DiBrienza's and Nisewaner's campaigns. Ladomirak declined an interview at this time.

Jennifer DiBrienza

DiBrienza, a former teacher and parent of three children, said in an interview she's proud of the progress the district has made in improving leadership, transparency and operations since her election in 2016. She sat on the dais through enormous turnover and controversy, including the resignation of former superintendent Max McGee, the departure of other top-level administrators and uproar over the district's handling of campus sexual violence and budget issues. In 2018, she voted to hire current Superintendent Don Austin as McGee's replacement.

DiBrienza served as board president in 2019, when the district grappled with the potential impact of Stanford University's ambitious expansion plan.

DiBrienza said she had always planned to run for a second term. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, she felt like Palo Alto Unified — with "radically improved" operations and leadership in place — was on the cusp of making progress on issues she's prioritized, particularly related to student mental health and closing the achievement gap.

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The coronavirus has only "magnified" those systemic issues, she said.

"Before COVID it was really all about continuing the work I finally felt we were set up to accomplish," DiBrienza said. "After COVID, it's all COVID all the time, as it should be, but those things aren't really separate: our mental health and wellness, our connectivity, our equity are all rolled into that. We really have to continue to get better at each of these things that we're trying to do to make sure we're reaching all kids."

DiBrienza said the district is at an "inflection point" with its work to improve outcomes for minority and low-income students. She pointed to the creation of an assistant superintendent for equity position, the investment in full-time elementary school reading specialists, the board's commitment to having a standing agenda item on equity, anti-bias professional development happening this summer and groups of teachers reading the book "White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism" together as examples of ongoing work in that area.

Deepening the district's understanding of and commitment to addressing inequity is even more critical as the district prepares to begin a new school year fully online, she said.

She's "optimistic" that elementary schools will be able to physically reopen sooner, at some point in the fall, given the growing evidence around children being lower risk for contracting and spreading COVID-19. But she supports committing to a set time period for distance learning so that teachers, students and families can focus.

Worried about how the shutdown has impacted students' mental health, she wants the district to prioritize bringing students to campus in person for safe social interaction and engagement in small groups.

DiBrienza began her career as an elementary-school teacher and eventually administrator in the New York City public school system. After moving to the Bay Area, she worked as an education consultant to school districts across the country.

She has three children: a rising sophomore at Palo Alto High School, a rising eighth-grader not in the district and a rising fourth-grader at Ohlone Elementary School.

Karna Nisewaner

During the coronavirus shutdown, Karna Nisewaner felt compelled to move beyond just words about the state of her children's education and into action. In the spring, she watched her children, both Addison Elementary School students, struggle with distance learning and heard from other working parents about their challenges juggling full-time jobs with their children's online education.

"It's all well and good for people to complain, to say that they don't like something or that they're not satisfied but it's up to us to actually try to do something," she said. "I think it's important to step up and say, 'I think I could help.'"

Nisewaner has decided to make a bid for the school board to bring her perspective as a parent and lawyer.

Nisewaner, who grew up in Millbrae, has lived in Palo Alto since 2007. She started her legal career at the Palo Alto branch of intellectual property law firm Finnegan in 2001. She went on to work in legal roles at Intuit and IBM. She is currently vice president and deputy general counsel at Cadence Design Systems, an electronic design company in San Jose, where she's worked for the last nine years and leads a team focused on intellectual property, litigation, employment and transactions -- "all of the things necessary to make sure that business is running right and following all the rules," she said.

She hopes to bring this expertise as well as commitment to transparency to the board, if elected. As the district grapples with unprecedented challenges around how to educate students during a public health crisis, Nisewaner advocated for proactive communication and flexibility.

"I don't think it's a one-size-fits-all solution and I don't think it should be," she said about when and how to reopen schools.

For the district's youngest students — which include her 10-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son — she wants the district to prioritize providing "something that goes beyond just Zoom meetings" in the fall.

Her son, who has an individualized education plan (IEP) for reading, needs to have someone sitting with him and going over online assignments. For her daughter, the hardest part was missing the social fabric of school.

Since 2017, Nisewaner has served on the board of directors for Palo Alto Community Child Care (PACCC), including a term as chair. She led the board through the nonprofit's initial COVID-19 response, according to her campaign website. She suggested the district look to local child care providers for examples of how to safely serve students in person.

"I'm not going to profess to be an expert in education, but it's my job" as a lawyer, she said, "to understand the needs that various people have and figure out … (how to be) more flexible in our definition of what we're going to do."

Nisewaner also serves on the Addison school site council and volunteers with her daughter's Girl Scouts troop.

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School board race expands with two newcomers, one incumbent

Jennifer DiBrienza to seek second term; two parents also to run for open seats

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Fri, Jul 31, 2020, 5:21 pm

The Palo Alto Unified school board race is heating up, with two additional newcomers in the running and an incumbent announcing her reelection bid.

Jennifer DiBrienza, who is nearing the end of her first term on the Board of Education, confirmed she plans to seek a second term. Board President Todd Collins, also in his first term, has pulled papers for the race but said he's not yet decided whether he will run.

The two newcomers are parents Karna Nisewaner, a lawyer, and Jesse Ladomirak, who owns Teevan, a housing restoration company in San Francisco.

Katie Causey, a Palo Alto Unified graduate, also announced in July that she's running for a seat on the five-member board.

Three seats will be up for grabs in November when the terms of board Collins, DiBrienza and Melissa Baten Caswell expire. Baten Caswell is seeking a seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Education.

Below is information about DiBrienza's and Nisewaner's campaigns. Ladomirak declined an interview at this time.

Jennifer DiBrienza

DiBrienza, a former teacher and parent of three children, said in an interview she's proud of the progress the district has made in improving leadership, transparency and operations since her election in 2016. She sat on the dais through enormous turnover and controversy, including the resignation of former superintendent Max McGee, the departure of other top-level administrators and uproar over the district's handling of campus sexual violence and budget issues. In 2018, she voted to hire current Superintendent Don Austin as McGee's replacement.

DiBrienza served as board president in 2019, when the district grappled with the potential impact of Stanford University's ambitious expansion plan.

DiBrienza said she had always planned to run for a second term. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, she felt like Palo Alto Unified — with "radically improved" operations and leadership in place — was on the cusp of making progress on issues she's prioritized, particularly related to student mental health and closing the achievement gap.

The coronavirus has only "magnified" those systemic issues, she said.

"Before COVID it was really all about continuing the work I finally felt we were set up to accomplish," DiBrienza said. "After COVID, it's all COVID all the time, as it should be, but those things aren't really separate: our mental health and wellness, our connectivity, our equity are all rolled into that. We really have to continue to get better at each of these things that we're trying to do to make sure we're reaching all kids."

DiBrienza said the district is at an "inflection point" with its work to improve outcomes for minority and low-income students. She pointed to the creation of an assistant superintendent for equity position, the investment in full-time elementary school reading specialists, the board's commitment to having a standing agenda item on equity, anti-bias professional development happening this summer and groups of teachers reading the book "White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism" together as examples of ongoing work in that area.

Deepening the district's understanding of and commitment to addressing inequity is even more critical as the district prepares to begin a new school year fully online, she said.

She's "optimistic" that elementary schools will be able to physically reopen sooner, at some point in the fall, given the growing evidence around children being lower risk for contracting and spreading COVID-19. But she supports committing to a set time period for distance learning so that teachers, students and families can focus.

Worried about how the shutdown has impacted students' mental health, she wants the district to prioritize bringing students to campus in person for safe social interaction and engagement in small groups.

DiBrienza began her career as an elementary-school teacher and eventually administrator in the New York City public school system. After moving to the Bay Area, she worked as an education consultant to school districts across the country.

She has three children: a rising sophomore at Palo Alto High School, a rising eighth-grader not in the district and a rising fourth-grader at Ohlone Elementary School.

Karna Nisewaner

During the coronavirus shutdown, Karna Nisewaner felt compelled to move beyond just words about the state of her children's education and into action. In the spring, she watched her children, both Addison Elementary School students, struggle with distance learning and heard from other working parents about their challenges juggling full-time jobs with their children's online education.

"It's all well and good for people to complain, to say that they don't like something or that they're not satisfied but it's up to us to actually try to do something," she said. "I think it's important to step up and say, 'I think I could help.'"

Nisewaner has decided to make a bid for the school board to bring her perspective as a parent and lawyer.

Nisewaner, who grew up in Millbrae, has lived in Palo Alto since 2007. She started her legal career at the Palo Alto branch of intellectual property law firm Finnegan in 2001. She went on to work in legal roles at Intuit and IBM. She is currently vice president and deputy general counsel at Cadence Design Systems, an electronic design company in San Jose, where she's worked for the last nine years and leads a team focused on intellectual property, litigation, employment and transactions -- "all of the things necessary to make sure that business is running right and following all the rules," she said.

She hopes to bring this expertise as well as commitment to transparency to the board, if elected. As the district grapples with unprecedented challenges around how to educate students during a public health crisis, Nisewaner advocated for proactive communication and flexibility.

"I don't think it's a one-size-fits-all solution and I don't think it should be," she said about when and how to reopen schools.

For the district's youngest students — which include her 10-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son — she wants the district to prioritize providing "something that goes beyond just Zoom meetings" in the fall.

Her son, who has an individualized education plan (IEP) for reading, needs to have someone sitting with him and going over online assignments. For her daughter, the hardest part was missing the social fabric of school.

Since 2017, Nisewaner has served on the board of directors for Palo Alto Community Child Care (PACCC), including a term as chair. She led the board through the nonprofit's initial COVID-19 response, according to her campaign website. She suggested the district look to local child care providers for examples of how to safely serve students in person.

"I'm not going to profess to be an expert in education, but it's my job" as a lawyer, she said, "to understand the needs that various people have and figure out … (how to be) more flexible in our definition of what we're going to do."

Nisewaner also serves on the Addison school site council and volunteers with her daughter's Girl Scouts troop.

Comments

katherinecausey
University South
on Jul 31, 2020 at 8:37 pm
katherinecausey, University South
on Jul 31, 2020 at 8:37 pm
8 people like this

Welcome to the race ladies I am so excited for November!


Mark Weiss
Downtown North

on Aug 1, 2020 at 12:37 am
Name hidden, Downtown North

on Aug 1, 2020 at 12:37 am

Due to violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are only visible to registered users who are logged in. Use the links at the top of the page to Register or Login.


Rebecca Eisenberg
Old Palo Alto
on Aug 1, 2020 at 2:17 am
Rebecca Eisenberg, Old Palo Alto
on Aug 1, 2020 at 2:17 am
21 people like this

Karna sounds amazing and I look forward to hearing more about her plans. We absolutely need fresh voices and big change on the School Board, and as a fellow lawyer running for local office, I agree that legal experience brings a lot to the table. Thank you for running for this challenging role! I look forward to working with you in 2021.


Sally-Ann Rudd
Downtown North
on Aug 1, 2020 at 3:07 pm
Sally-Ann Rudd, Downtown North
on Aug 1, 2020 at 3:07 pm
38 people like this

Anyone running for school board should have all their children in public schools in Palo Alto.


Giselle Galper
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 2, 2020 at 9:27 am
Giselle Galper, Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 2, 2020 at 9:27 am
18 people like this

@Sally-Ann Rudd,

100%.


Martha
Fairmeadow School
on Aug 3, 2020 at 5:47 am
Martha, Fairmeadow School
on Aug 3, 2020 at 5:47 am
32 people like this

There should be a law that only parents of students at PAUSD can run for board.

Why are parents of the school district being represented by a board which is predominately made up of members who are not stakeholders??
Beyond comprehension!!!

Otherwise, there should be a separate parents’ union like the teachers’ union to voice parent concerns and make themselves heard!


LG
Crescent Park
on Aug 3, 2020 at 10:15 am
LG, Crescent Park
on Aug 3, 2020 at 10:15 am
18 people like this

I agree with Sally-Ann Rudd. Those running should enroll their children in PAUSD.


Mark Weiss
Downtown North

on Aug 3, 2020 at 11:05 am
Name hidden, Downtown North

on Aug 3, 2020 at 11:05 am

Due to violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are only visible to registered users who are logged in. Use the links at the top of the page to Register or Login.


Heidi Schwenk
Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 3, 2020 at 11:05 am
Heidi Schwenk, Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 3, 2020 at 11:05 am
8 people like this

Where is Jennifer DiBrienza‘s child enrolled? [Portion removed.]


JLS mom
Fairmeadow
on Aug 3, 2020 at 11:08 am
JLS mom, Fairmeadow
on Aug 3, 2020 at 11:08 am
29 people like this

What did diBrienza do last spring to improve on the disaster that was asynchronous education? Seems like the entire board was asleep at the wheel - if there was any disagreement with the administration's approach, I haven't seen it. I won't vote for any of these folks again, for any elected position.


Barron Park dad
Barron Park
on Aug 3, 2020 at 12:08 pm
Barron Park dad, Barron Park
on Aug 3, 2020 at 12:08 pm
19 people like this

I agree last Spring in PAUSD, esp. for secondary school kids, was a poor experience. Lack of instruction (i.e., teacher engagement) was the main problem. I would like to hear the Board candidates propose ideas for doing better.


Gunn Parent
Registered user
Barron Park
on Aug 3, 2020 at 5:14 pm
Gunn Parent, Barron Park
Registered user
on Aug 3, 2020 at 5:14 pm
14 people like this

I hope everyone remembers how long the board drug their feet and missed several opportunities to close the schools when it was already quite clear the virus was prevalent in the community. diBrienza and her colleagues even approved continuing school the day before Santa Clara put a lid on things. If the existing board, including diBrienza, had shown leadership we could have avoided many infections and hospitalizations (and possibly deaths) and students may well have been able to enjoy graduation like many of their European counterparts. Waiting until the county tells you to close the schools is no leadership and was not reflecting the concerns of our community or the safety of our teachers and students alike. Not sure who is the right candidate to replace diBrienza, but someone new deserves a chance to do better.


Curious
Registered user
another community
on Aug 3, 2020 at 6:45 pm
Curious , another community
Registered user
on Aug 3, 2020 at 6:45 pm
11 people like this

Hi Gunn Parent,

Just curious where I could find the data you used to conclude “many infections, hospitalizations (and possibly deaths)” could have been avoided because of the lack of leadership by our Board.


Greene Parent
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 4, 2020 at 10:48 am
Greene Parent, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Aug 4, 2020 at 10:48 am
14 people like this

The 2 board members knew that the community would question their decisions since it is a year of elections.
The board gave up control to the Superintendent who then had TOTAL power to do as he pleased, which meant that there was no need to give any REAL instruction.
Now the incumbents don't have to respond since the failure of the spring isn't on them. They are NOT a voice of the community, they aren't even invested in the community since they don't have all their kids going to our schools

Its time for change!


Paly Parent
Registered user
College Terrace
on Aug 5, 2020 at 11:37 am
Paly Parent, College Terrace
Registered user
on Aug 5, 2020 at 11:37 am
11 people like this

I have known Jennifer DiBrienza for years and she is an extraordinarily bright, thoughtful, and caring leader. She listens to the community, responds to questions and welcomes discussion. Jennifer has been involved in The Black Lives Matter movement for years. I remember her asking if anyone wanted to carpool to Oakland for a BLM meeting many years ago. When my older daughter was a 5th grader at Ohlone, Jennifer came in and guest taught some math classes. She chaperoned school camping trips. Jennifer DiBrienza is involved in the Palo Alto community on every level. We are lucky that she wants to run again.


Samuel L
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 5, 2020 at 12:17 pm
Samuel L, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Aug 5, 2020 at 12:17 pm
15 people like this

@Paly Parent - What has she done in her four years on the school board for PAUSD? What would be her list of accomplishments? Why should she be given another four years?

What I hear from her at most board meetings is saying thanks a lot. What has she done that should make others see that she is any different than anyone else?


Jennifer DiBrienza
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on Aug 6, 2020 at 2:33 pm
Jennifer DiBrienza, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on Aug 6, 2020 at 2:33 pm
16 people like this

@Samuel L,
Hi. Thanks for the question. I will attempt to summarize here but please email me anytime at [email protected] or visit my website at www.jenniferdibrienza.org

When I first joined the board, we were fighting with the Office of Civil Rights and were at the beginning of a Title IX investigation.
I oversaw a change in leadership, a re-organization of our district office, and a shift in our budgeting practices.
We repaired our relationship with the Office of Civil Rights, created a Title IX office, and increased education for students and staff about consent.
I insisted on a full-time reading specialist at each elementary school and amplified the crisis of dyslexia with a resolution and professional development plan to address it.
I've advocated for an alignment in workload, assessments, and grading practices across courses and schools for the benefit of all students.
I have been, and will continue to be, an advocate for educational justice, calling out and committing to addressing the systemic issues that exist in our district.
And now we are facing the launch of a school year in full-distance learning mode. It has been a challenge for so many families in various ways throughout the spring and summer. Guidance has changed on a near-daily basis and the needs in the district vary just as widely. I will continue to advocate for clear communication with families, high standards for distance learning, support for those struggling with isolation, and effective pedagogies for remote engagement, authentic learning, and content mastery.

Happy to continue the conversation.
Thank you!


Michelle
Registered user
Community Center
on Aug 7, 2020 at 12:45 pm
Michelle, Community Center
Registered user
on Aug 7, 2020 at 12:45 pm
3 people like this

Jennifer DiBrienza has always served our school board with great integrity, care and intelligence. She is the lone board member who has actually worked as a public school teacher and also holds a PhD in education. We are lucky that she has chosen to serve our community for the past four years in this role and is willing to run again.
Jennifer is actually a parent of 2 current students in PAUSD schools. However, that is not why she has my vote. What impresses me most is her genuine care for students and their experience in PAUSD, along with her laser focus on ensuring our schools serve all students well not just those who have traditionally experienced success here.


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