'Longtime school board member to seek seat on county Board of Education'

Palo Alto Online |

by Elena Kadvany | Palo Alto Weekly

After 13 years as a Palo Alto Unified School District board member, Melissa Baten Caswell is moving on — but she's not leaving local school governance yet. She confirmed Tuesday that she's seeking a seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Education in November.

Baten Caswell, the school board's longest-serving member, will be running for Area 1, which represents the Palo Alto Unified, Los Altos, Mountain View Whisman and Mountain View-Los Altos Union High school districts and a portion of the Sunnyvale and Fremont Union High School districts.

Grace Mah, also a Palo Alto resident, currently represents Area 1; her term expires in November. Mah was reelected in 2016 and has served on the county board for over a decade.

Baten Caswell sees an opportunity to effect change on a body that she said currently struggles to work together effectively. If elected, she hopes to help school districts collaborate rather than operate in vacuums — particularly as they navigate the complexities of reopening, distance learning and budget deficits due to the coronavirus.

"I think it's a huge opportunity to do things differently," she said in an interview. "I think we've gotten stuck in a model that is serving some people, but I don't think it's serving all 32 districts."

Baten Caswell, a former business manager and longtime schools volunteer, just finished a one-year term as the president of the Santa Clara County School Boards Association. She said twice as many people started attending the body's meetings during the shutdown, underscoring for her the need to improve communication and collaboration.

When Baten Caswell was first elected to the Palo Alto school board in 2007, she focused on reinvigorating the district's guiding document, the Strategic Plan (now dubbed the "PAUSD Promise"). She persuaded the management-consulting firm McKinsey & Company to help the district develop a new document and new process with stronger community input. She pointed to this as valuable experience she would bring to the county school board.

"The idea of having one set of priorities and measuring ourselves against it makes it a lot easier to do business," she said. "I'd like to see the county board do the same thing. I'd like to see the board members work together."

Baten Caswell has served on the Palo Alto school board through three superintendents, major educational shifts and numerous issues, from the Mandarin immersion controversy shortly before she was elected to the renaming of Jordan and Terman middle schools and a federal Title IX investigation into sexual misconduct — and now, the pandemic.

She said it's a "tough time" to leave the school board, but she's hopeful the open seats will be filled by candidates with children currently attending Palo Alto Unified schools. (Currently, only DiBrienza has a child in the district.)

Through her involvement with statewide school organizations — including Schools for Sound Finance, the California Association of Suburban School Districts and the California School Boards Association — she said she's noticed a growing willingness to think differently about public education, particularly during a health crisis. This motivated her to run for a seat on the county board.

"If people aren't willing to look at things differently now, they never will be — but I do think they are now," she said. "They want to make sure our educational programs stay strong and we're going to struggle to do that if we don't work together."

Baten Caswell will be ending her third term in November. Despite the fact that in 2018 voters in Palo Alto approved a ballot measure that limits school board members to two, four-year terms in office, it only applies to terms beginning on or before Dec. 1, 2018.

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