News

Where the Palo Alto school board candidates stand on the superintendent

Contenders offer feedback on Don Austin's performance to date

Palo Alto Unified School Board Superintendent Don Austin speaks at commencement at Palo Alto High School on June 1, 2022. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

In preparation for the Palo Alto Weekly's coverage of the campaigns for Palo Alto Unified Board of Education, we solicited questions from our readers that speak to their topmost concerns about the school district. From their many excellent responses, we've crafted a short questionnaire, which we hope will help elucidate the differences among the four candidates.

From their many excellent responses, we crafted a short questionnaire for the candidates to complete. In response, they discussed their primary concerns and experience in education. They also offer their opinions on student achievement, COVID-19 learning loss, diversity and inclusion, the superintendent and innovations. The candidates' answers on all these topics will be published as separate articles, one per day, through Sept. 26. Here's what they had to say to the following question: What letter grade would you give for Superintendent Don Austin's performance to date, and why?

Nicole Chiu-Wang

Nicole Chiu-Wang. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

To grade our superintendent's performance to date, I would grade for hard and soft skills. For hard skills, I would give Superintendent Austin a "Satisfactory" grade because he brought focus and has executed on our goals in many areas. For soft skills, I would give a "Needs Improvement" grade because he should have involved the community in executing the district's goals.

We were the first district in the county to reopen schools during the pandemic, but re-opening was scary for everyone — teachers, staff, parents, and students. Unfortunately, the process of deciding when to re-open was problematic. For those particularly scared, it felt like a rubber-stamp process in which the community was not invited to participate and their valid concerns were not heard. This points to a larger issue — poor communication.

Superintendent Austin has implemented some impactful initiatives. Unfortunately, he is not a communications specialist and his communication has been lacking. Without better communication, members of our school community lack the information needed to feel comfortable with change — even if it's done with the best intent.

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As the superintendent's "boss," I believe it is the job of the school board to acknowledge that no superintendent will be equally skilled in every area and the right support people should be put in place to complement the superintendent's strengths and weaknesses. In this case, we needed a communications officer, and the district just hired one — now we will see how better communication will help our district!

It's also important to note the state of the district when Superintendent Austin started. We had a lot of issues to address, but we lacked clarity and prioritization. Seeing this, Superintendent Austin created the PAUSD Promise with measures we can follow. This was an important step in the right direction and shows Superintendent Austin's strengths.

Shounak Dharap

Shounak Dharap. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

The Superintendent has done an admirable job in building a solid administrative foundation for the district, including by recruiting and building a core management team that is able to effectively implement policy direction set by the board. This has resulted in strong recruitment and hiring, increased academic scores, broadened opportunities for learning (i.e., industry certifications and dual enrollment), and a focus on equitable achievement. His involvement with other superintendents across California and the country has provided us with access to a broader perspective, knowledge, and resources for best practices.

During COVID, we were one of the first public school districts to begin reopening; and we did it safely. While this was a priority set by the board, Dr. Austin was the one who implemented the direction and lobbied to the county and state to make it happen, including by lobbying for prioritizing teacher vaccinations back when teachers were not in the first priority area for the new vaccines.

His leadership was also critical in clarifying county and state guidance for opening during COVID and I'm confident that without him we would not have been able to open as early as we did; nor would we have been able to do so without any COVID outbreaks on campuses.

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The "minus" is because there's always room for improvement. Dr. Austin has been in the district for about four years now, but for a significant portion of that time, we were in crisis mode during COVID. Moving forward, there is an opportunity for Dr. Austin to continue engaging with the community and building his knowledge of PAUSD and Palo Alto's roots, including context for issues of historical importance to the community; as well as building stronger bonds with the various stakeholder groups (teachers, staff and parents) the district serves.

Shana Segal. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Shana Segal

To best understand effectiveness, one needs to evaluate Dr. Austin's strengths and areas for improvement. As a parent, substitute teacher, educator, and regular attendee of board meetings, I would give the following evaluation:

Areas of strength:

• SWIFT Plan (2021-24)

• PAUSD Promise plan (2019-20)

• Supporting PAUSD's outstanding diversity of academic and co-curricular offerings.

• Collaboration with PTA/PTSA

• Connections with superintendents across the state

Areas for improvement:

Transparency:

• Policy changes. For example: repeated academic schedule changes and rules around non-class periods such as Prep, SELF, tutorial, Study Hall, etc. have not been adequately explained to students or parents.

• Partner provider relationships: For example, last March, PAUSD abruptly, and without explanation, announced that Right at School, a for-profit national chain, would replace Palo Alto Community Child Care (PACCC), a quality nonprofit child care program that has served Palo Alto for decades.

Communication:

• Many parents have felt Dr. Austin's responses to them have been dismissive and/or intimidating. We need to cultivate a culture of mutual respect.

• Families found out last minute that their elementary school aged children were placed in multi-grade classrooms without explanation. Similarly, Palo Verde families discovered from a newspaper article that their school would be relocating to Cubberley.

Respect:

• Attracting and retaining high quality teachers is critical to PAUSD's success. Teacher morale is low. In a survey published in May, 50% of PAUSD teachers rated their morale as Very Low or Low. 63% cited lack of district administration support as the primary cause.

• Stakeholders report that parent, teacher, and student input is often disrespected or invalidated.

Community support

• Declining enrollment has been explained away by the pandemic or cost of living. However, I've learned through my consulting that school satisfaction factors are also at play. Declining enrollment leads to multi-grade classes, lower PTA/PIE donations and possible school closures.

Ingrid Campos

Ingrid Campos. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

I give him an A-.

I am very happy with Dr. Don Austin's performance as Superintendent because he makes it his job to be involved in the business of running a top-notch, affluent school district with the care and curation of its students and parents in mind. I was always amazed at his level, and willingness, of communication with the school community. His communication and his open and accessible style makes it very easy to talk to him about concerns, hopes, dreams, laments and anything else really. Through his tutelage, focus on early literacy has been a progressive accomplishment in PAUSD and has brought literacy numbers and data to higher standards every year since 2018.

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Where the Palo Alto school board candidates stand on the superintendent

Contenders offer feedback on Don Austin's performance to date

by Palo Alto Weekly staff / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Mon, Sep 26, 2022, 7:32 pm

In preparation for the Palo Alto Weekly's coverage of the campaigns for Palo Alto Unified Board of Education, we solicited questions from our readers that speak to their topmost concerns about the school district. From their many excellent responses, we've crafted a short questionnaire, which we hope will help elucidate the differences among the four candidates.

From their many excellent responses, we crafted a short questionnaire for the candidates to complete. In response, they discussed their primary concerns and experience in education. They also offer their opinions on student achievement, COVID-19 learning loss, diversity and inclusion, the superintendent and innovations. The candidates' answers on all these topics will be published as separate articles, one per day, through Sept. 26. Here's what they had to say to the following question: What letter grade would you give for Superintendent Don Austin's performance to date, and why?

Nicole Chiu-Wang

To grade our superintendent's performance to date, I would grade for hard and soft skills. For hard skills, I would give Superintendent Austin a "Satisfactory" grade because he brought focus and has executed on our goals in many areas. For soft skills, I would give a "Needs Improvement" grade because he should have involved the community in executing the district's goals.

We were the first district in the county to reopen schools during the pandemic, but re-opening was scary for everyone — teachers, staff, parents, and students. Unfortunately, the process of deciding when to re-open was problematic. For those particularly scared, it felt like a rubber-stamp process in which the community was not invited to participate and their valid concerns were not heard. This points to a larger issue — poor communication.

Superintendent Austin has implemented some impactful initiatives. Unfortunately, he is not a communications specialist and his communication has been lacking. Without better communication, members of our school community lack the information needed to feel comfortable with change — even if it's done with the best intent.

As the superintendent's "boss," I believe it is the job of the school board to acknowledge that no superintendent will be equally skilled in every area and the right support people should be put in place to complement the superintendent's strengths and weaknesses. In this case, we needed a communications officer, and the district just hired one — now we will see how better communication will help our district!

It's also important to note the state of the district when Superintendent Austin started. We had a lot of issues to address, but we lacked clarity and prioritization. Seeing this, Superintendent Austin created the PAUSD Promise with measures we can follow. This was an important step in the right direction and shows Superintendent Austin's strengths.

Shounak Dharap

The Superintendent has done an admirable job in building a solid administrative foundation for the district, including by recruiting and building a core management team that is able to effectively implement policy direction set by the board. This has resulted in strong recruitment and hiring, increased academic scores, broadened opportunities for learning (i.e., industry certifications and dual enrollment), and a focus on equitable achievement. His involvement with other superintendents across California and the country has provided us with access to a broader perspective, knowledge, and resources for best practices.

During COVID, we were one of the first public school districts to begin reopening; and we did it safely. While this was a priority set by the board, Dr. Austin was the one who implemented the direction and lobbied to the county and state to make it happen, including by lobbying for prioritizing teacher vaccinations back when teachers were not in the first priority area for the new vaccines.

His leadership was also critical in clarifying county and state guidance for opening during COVID and I'm confident that without him we would not have been able to open as early as we did; nor would we have been able to do so without any COVID outbreaks on campuses.

The "minus" is because there's always room for improvement. Dr. Austin has been in the district for about four years now, but for a significant portion of that time, we were in crisis mode during COVID. Moving forward, there is an opportunity for Dr. Austin to continue engaging with the community and building his knowledge of PAUSD and Palo Alto's roots, including context for issues of historical importance to the community; as well as building stronger bonds with the various stakeholder groups (teachers, staff and parents) the district serves.

Shana Segal

To best understand effectiveness, one needs to evaluate Dr. Austin's strengths and areas for improvement. As a parent, substitute teacher, educator, and regular attendee of board meetings, I would give the following evaluation:

Areas of strength:

• SWIFT Plan (2021-24)

• PAUSD Promise plan (2019-20)

• Supporting PAUSD's outstanding diversity of academic and co-curricular offerings.

• Collaboration with PTA/PTSA

• Connections with superintendents across the state

Areas for improvement:

Transparency:

• Policy changes. For example: repeated academic schedule changes and rules around non-class periods such as Prep, SELF, tutorial, Study Hall, etc. have not been adequately explained to students or parents.

• Partner provider relationships: For example, last March, PAUSD abruptly, and without explanation, announced that Right at School, a for-profit national chain, would replace Palo Alto Community Child Care (PACCC), a quality nonprofit child care program that has served Palo Alto for decades.

Communication:

• Many parents have felt Dr. Austin's responses to them have been dismissive and/or intimidating. We need to cultivate a culture of mutual respect.

• Families found out last minute that their elementary school aged children were placed in multi-grade classrooms without explanation. Similarly, Palo Verde families discovered from a newspaper article that their school would be relocating to Cubberley.

Respect:

• Attracting and retaining high quality teachers is critical to PAUSD's success. Teacher morale is low. In a survey published in May, 50% of PAUSD teachers rated their morale as Very Low or Low. 63% cited lack of district administration support as the primary cause.

• Stakeholders report that parent, teacher, and student input is often disrespected or invalidated.

Community support

• Declining enrollment has been explained away by the pandemic or cost of living. However, I've learned through my consulting that school satisfaction factors are also at play. Declining enrollment leads to multi-grade classes, lower PTA/PIE donations and possible school closures.

Ingrid Campos

I give him an A-.

I am very happy with Dr. Don Austin's performance as Superintendent because he makes it his job to be involved in the business of running a top-notch, affluent school district with the care and curation of its students and parents in mind. I was always amazed at his level, and willingness, of communication with the school community. His communication and his open and accessible style makes it very easy to talk to him about concerns, hopes, dreams, laments and anything else really. Through his tutelage, focus on early literacy has been a progressive accomplishment in PAUSD and has brought literacy numbers and data to higher standards every year since 2018.

Comments

Allison
Registered user
Midtown
on Sep 26, 2022 at 8:54 pm
Allison, Midtown
Registered user
on Sep 26, 2022 at 8:54 pm

Shana Segal rises above the pack in her response to this question. Wow! Thank you for such a detailed response to REAL issues that you have witnessed in your dedicated time thus far with PAUSD. Bravo.


Native to the BAY
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Sep 27, 2022 at 2:14 am
Native to the BAY, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Sep 27, 2022 at 2:14 am

Ms. Chiu-Wang and Mr. Dharap are right on. Their human 2 human, student 2 student approach is welcoming and inclusive. I have had a lot of respect for Mr. Austin over the years. Especially coming into a highly toxic & grief stricken district! Yet. I have not heard him refer 2 COVID 4 months. As if Co-V2 never happened. 2 thier credit PAUSD Board stepped up hugely w Pandemic crisis & served the most needy families first!! A+ Immediately, the City & District wiped the PAPD assigned campus resource officer. Wether this was a G Floyd response or budget or both, I was extremely concerned. Instead private, fully armed security is hired for Paly/Gunn once in a decade football game. Totally perplexed. Shauna’s reliance on data sets & bullet points, & contract consults sets me on edge. Our students are overwhelmed w filing out forms & saddled w confusion w tge who, what, when and where guidance is for their academic & day to day live/academic/ lives. They deserve bette. I am all the way with Md. Chiu- Wang & incumbent, Dharpa. I really believe it’s okay to partner with local, affiliated, city agencies, departments and entities to get our students to baseline. Without the perceived negative “optics”. Personally, my teen child is mystified at sudden changes: like the three tiered high school guidance system, households were informed of a week before fall term. This does not have to be rocket science, or a computer engineer to navigate. It should not be a maze but a path to a better future. Again. Ms. Segal, data sets, surveys, and consults are not the way to a child’s individual success. To Ms. Compos. Please remove all your campaign signs from east side of Alma, planted in City grass area between curb and sidewalk. Talk about bad optics. Someone has stuck these in front of many multi family, rental properties. Please don’t take advantage of these un sanctioned areas for a vote. Renters r given few rights. showing campaign support, unknowingly could be a lease violation.


Observer
Registered user
Midtown
on Sep 27, 2022 at 8:51 am
Observer, Midtown
Registered user
on Sep 27, 2022 at 8:51 am

It has been noted in other articles that Ms. Chiu Wang recently moved to Palo Alto and enrolled her child in TK. Without any experience in the schools yet, it is hard to consider her talking points about the school experience during covid as anything other than spoonfed information from the powers that be in PAUSD. She also appears to have an inside track on hiring information since Dr. Austin's public email on Friday stated they had extended an offer to a top candidate for the communications manager role. When was the information for this article sent in by her team?

I'm digging into who is behind each of these campaigns and not liking what I see, especially the ways she is receiving inside help. How can someone weigh issues independently and credibly represent who they are elected to represent when they owe favors to the current board?


Annie B.
Registered user
Midtown
on Sep 27, 2022 at 11:27 am
Annie B., Midtown
Registered user
on Sep 27, 2022 at 11:27 am

I love Shana’s response! Clearly she’s familiar with those documents, and it shows. Shounak obviously also is. Let’s get/keep capable people who are not afraid of diving into the details onto the school board! It’s the details that keep the system running; the state and federal laws, state forms, taxation systems, teacher contracts, and other state and federal requirements. Let’s have people who understand them, work with them and can hit the ground running as we come out of COVID. Good intentions are nice, but the school district needs extremely capable people who can work within the system if we are to make forward progress here. We have a moment where change could happen, let’s seize it!


Resident10
Registered user
Professorville
on Sep 27, 2022 at 2:01 pm
Resident10, Professorville
Registered user
on Sep 27, 2022 at 2:01 pm

What an interesting campaign it has been so far!
[Portion removed.]

In spite of the BLM yard signs and the politically correct t-shirts, we have a lot of people in Palo Alto that clearly do not understand real inclusivity or representation. Or maybe they do know what it means but don't actually believe in it if it means THEY might have to compromise on anything?! They only wave the inclusivity banner when it is convenient or politically helpful.

This campaign has shined a light on the attempted power grab. The goal is complete control of the school board to drown out any other voices that don't share their "superior" ideological beliefs - exactly the opposite of inclusivity.

Please, let's change this long-time dynamic in Palo Alto. We need independent voices on the school board that will listen to and value the whole community not a cabal.


PAUSD Parent
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 27, 2022 at 3:06 pm
PAUSD Parent, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Sep 27, 2022 at 3:06 pm

Shounak and Nicole are running on the best platforms with positive campaign, and these two are our top choice for PAUSD school board. They are representing new generation of local Asian American parents, that’s why they have many supporters from local young Asian American parents.


PAUSD Parent
Registered user
Midtown
on Sep 27, 2022 at 3:14 pm
PAUSD Parent, Midtown
Registered user
on Sep 27, 2022 at 3:14 pm

[Portion removed due to deletion of referenced comment.] Nicole Chiu-Wang has the support of many in this community, including but not limited to, Asian voters. Regardless of political affliction, could we focus our discussion away from external appearance and turn our attention to the pressing issues at hand.


Resident10
Registered user
Professorville
on Sep 27, 2022 at 6:05 pm
Resident10, Professorville
Registered user
on Sep 27, 2022 at 6:05 pm

@PAUSD Parent - Inclusivity is a pressing issue on our community to many people. It's great that Shana is actually willing to listen to everyone and make up her own mind. We need that independence on the Board.

All the candidates have positive ideas in their platforms but only Shana knows HOW to get things done in a school setting. She has the most well-thought out ideas and specifics. Ideas alone do not change things - well executed actions do and we need someone with the knowledge and skill set to get things done on the Board.


Native to the BAY
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Sep 28, 2022 at 11:53 am
Native to the BAY, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Sep 28, 2022 at 11:53 am

@Resident10 Ms. Nicole Chiu-Wang and Shounak offer the very ideals we expect from or students / children. Compassion, empathy, resiliency, inclusivity, equity, diversity and knowledge based decisions. They are young with a fresh perspective and yes, I believe both are by necessity, renters. A data point that is front and center our PAUSD and City governance, resident senior citizens, children, differently abled, the missing middle — parent who work at Wal-Greens or McDonalds or teachers, or Stanford custodial, security guards or run a small biz... The nearly half or more who serve the needs of our more affluent SFH owners. These two doers and thinkers have heart for the very REAL struggle in sustaining and growing social emotional age appropriate, academic health — in a run-a-way capitalistic, privatization of near everything we touch . Wisdom can come at any age. And these two imbibe this quality of shared experience!! PAUSD is not a astroid spinning around the City Earth. Alignment of both City and PAUSD planets by means of a balance gravitational pull and push so both exist together with stronger partnering. Such that one cannot exist with the influential, tandem work that has to accomplished. Sharing, giving property up, expanding equitable resources to together as one Universe we grow.


Linda MacKenzie
Registered user
Palo Verde
on Sep 29, 2022 at 3:24 pm
Linda MacKenzie, Palo Verde
Registered user
on Sep 29, 2022 at 3:24 pm

I will not be supporting Ingrid Campos for school board. Check out her Facebook postings. Ms. Campos is a MAGA Republican who has no problem calling Gavin Newsome an "a__hole," and Nancy Pelosi a "biyatch." She believes that Anthony Fauci should be "tried for treason" and would be happy to see Hillary "locked up." She thinks that Liz Cheney is "un-American" and loves whatever she hears coming out of the mouths of Rand Paul and Marjorie Taylor Greene. Ms. Campos believes that the January 6th rioters were "exercising their right to free speech." When questioned about her right-wing views, Ms. Campos claims they are irrelevant to the local school board race. Oh, really?? On her campaign website Ms. Campos states that LGBTQ members of our community are living a "deviant lifestyle." She complains that Scholastic books is a "deviant book publishing company" and should be banned by all Palo Alto schools. She finds any discussion of race or racism in the classroom an example of Critical Race Theory. Don't be misled by her benign, friendly-sounding campaign. [Portion removed.] Our school district has serious challenges ahead. We don't need to be distracted by someone like Ms. Campos. We don't need to be represented by someone who disrespects our community by calling it "woke, libtard Palo Alto." Nope. Don't be apathetic. [Portion removed.]


Morgan
Registered user
Meadow Park
on Sep 29, 2022 at 4:06 pm
Morgan , Meadow Park
Registered user
on Sep 29, 2022 at 4:06 pm

@Linda Mackenzie - Why do you think Campos is such a fan of Don Austin? Shana Segal says that Austin is "dismissive and/or intimidating" and implies a lack of respect that Austin gives parents. Does that sound like anyone else that used to be in charge? Austin does what he wants and bullies people that disagree with him. Disappointed to see Dharap try to tiptoe around that.


Resident10
Registered user
Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 29, 2022 at 7:56 pm
Resident10, Leland Manor/Garland Drive
Registered user
on Sep 29, 2022 at 7:56 pm

@Native to the Bay - Nicole and Shounk are "Doers". What is the evidence of this? What has Nicole done in the community or the schools to show us this? Wisdom of shared experience??? No experience in the schools for either [portion removed.] Lots of words but little compelling facts or arguments here. Prose is lovely but not a compelling reason to vote for either of them.


Anony Mouse
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Sep 29, 2022 at 9:36 pm
Anony Mouse, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Sep 29, 2022 at 9:36 pm

@morgan, I too am disappointed by Mr. Dharap's answer with respect to our current superintendent. It speaks of the unfortunate and possibly inevitable capture that occurs with many Boards. They listen too much to the avalanche of victory speeches and chest thumping emanating from 25 Churchill. Meanwhile, morale is reaching rock bottom, Special Ed continues its march toward litigation through failing to meet IEP promises and on and on. The Board is blind to the reality because they are beholden to the current superintendent. Thus we see 99% unanimous votes on everything, and a rubber stamp of the whole program put forth by this admin. The dismissiveness of parents, the public, and teachers is not a bug, it's a feature. This Board needs 2 new board members. There seems to be some debate around should one choose Shana or Nicole? In my mind it's clear what that they both need to be elected. They have my vote. Is Nicole a bit of a wild card? Sure. Most likely she will be an upgrade on current members. Sometimes you just need to take a flyer - there's no way to be sure, but this institution is hurting - and for the students - I'm ready to take that risk.


Linda MacKenzie
Registered user
Palo Verde
on Sep 30, 2022 at 9:30 am
Linda MacKenzie, Palo Verde
Registered user
on Sep 30, 2022 at 9:30 am

@morgan.....My view is that Ingrid Campos is presenting herself as an insider, someone who can work with the superintendent and already has a good rapport with him. But, I really have no idea why she's giving the guy an "A-" for his work performance. She states that she can discuss her "dreams and laments" with him, so maybe that's why? But, according to the Santa Clara Democratic Party, Ingrid Campos has been identified as one of a number of MAGA-supported candidates running for school board seats, and MAGA-supported candidates have been instructed to "hide their anti-LQBTQ agenda and opposition to historical fact-based teaching on the subject of race, when speaking to a general audience." So, in my view, Ingrid Campos is also hiding behind a facade of benign niceness to suggest that she's a great communicator and already has a well-established bridge to the superintendent. That may appeal to some voters, but I'm not buying it. Right now she's just a parent in the district. He has to listen to her. If she were elected, entirely different story.


Morgan
Registered user
Meadow Park
on Sep 30, 2022 at 3:28 pm
Morgan , Meadow Park
Registered user
on Sep 30, 2022 at 3:28 pm

@Anony Mouse - Yes. From what I've seen when candidates campaign they tell you all of their great ideas and how they're going to make changes to the district. Once they get elected, it's as if someone flipped a switch in their brain and they no longer have any ambition to do anything but keep the status quo. Look at all of the current board members. How many of them have actually made a stand for something they claimed to support prior to getting elected. Ken Dauber has campaigned on anti-bullying, sexual harassment and anti-homework overload. He's been there for 8 years and have you ever seen him make an impassioned plea for any of that? Same with Collins, Dharap, DiBrienza and Ladomirak. Dharap and Ladomirak basically fade into the background. DiBrienza rarely has anything substantial to say and all three of them seem to just agree with what everyone else is saying.

It's as if they're afraid of saying something that might cause change. I would think that causing change is one of the reasons they decided to run in the first place.

As for Campos, @Linda Mackenzie. Yeah, she and Austin are two peas in a pod. I would guess they agree on many issues.


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