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Meet the 2020 School Board Candidates

In November, Palo Alto voters will decide on the next Board of Education trustees.

The outcome of the election will likely have broad implications on the district's reopening policy, as well as how the district supports underrepresented student populations, which many candidates put at the center of their campaigns.

The Paly Voice interviewed and profiled the six candidates, who are running for three seats on the Board. The candidates will face off in a debate hosted by Palo Alto Weekly on Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Katie Causey

“I know what it is like to walk into your classroom at age 14 to find your classmate is gone,” Katie Causey said. “And then the next month another, then the next month another.”

Student mental health and well-being is the “No. 1 priority” for Palo Alto Board of Education candidate Causey, she said. Causey attended Palo Alto High School during a string of devastating suicides in the district, prompting her focus on student wellness. Over the past decade, she has volunteered extensively with the Junior League of San Francisco, a women’s volunteer organization, and other nonprofits across the Bay Area.

Wellness centers and social emotional curriculum shared through advisory programs at Paly and Gunn are a positive step towards fostering a healthy environment for students, according to Causey — however, she said these implementations should not be “just a box we check.”

Photo: Katie Causey campaign for Board of Education

Todd Collins

Before Palo Alto Board of Education President Todd Collins started his first term, the district “kept getting enmeshed with scandals and mistakes,” including a $6 million “budget blunder” and Office of Civil Rights investigations, Collins said.

“When we started, we were not a well-run organization in my opinion,” Collins said. “We had cultural issues and we needed a change.”

Now focused on a message of guiding the Palo Alto Unified School District through the pandemic, entrepreneur and private investor Todd Collins is running for reelection.

Photo: Todd Collins

Jennifer DiBrienza

If you were a student at Ellen Fletcher Middle School last school year and you had an outstanding library fine, you would not be allowed to attend the school dance, according to page 16 of the school’s Student Handbook.

That, Palo Alto Board of Education member Jennifer DiBrienza said, is a small example of how the Palo Alto community has made low-income students who cannot necessarily afford a fine feel like “second-class citizens.” Many underrepresented students do not feel like the district “is there” for them and as a result feel alienated from the community, DiBrienza said.

In a campaign centered on remedying such systemic inequities and leading the school district through the educational and fiscal challenges posed by COVID-19, DiBrienza is seeking reelection to a second term on the Palo Alto Board of Education.

Photo: Dana Underwood

Jesse Ladomirak

A world-class, water-tight, faultless house may still come crumbling down in a storm if it rests on an unstable foundation. According to Palo Alto Board of Education candidate Jesse Ladomirak, this set of circumstances is analogous to Palo Alto Unified School District’s mental health and wellness situation.

Ladomirak, a renovation business owner, former public agency attorney and former corporate attorney, said wellness programs such as Social Emotional Learning curriculum in Advisory are vital “walls” to support a healthy student body, but the underlying issue in the “foundation” — the culture of the district — will perpetuate concerning mental health trends.

“We put all those wellness centers there and we want to push students to access them,” Ladomirak said. “But at the same time, kids are crying and having nervous breakdowns because the culture is telling them if they don’t get an A, life is over — what’s that disconnect?”

Photo: Maia Johnsson

Matthew Nagle

For Matthew Nagle, a graduate student at California State University East Bay and former Juana Briones Elementary School principal, educational inequity has long been a personal fight.

Once his daughter entered high school in 2014 and started taking advanced math classes, Nagle said he could no longer help with her coursework. He could not afford to hire a tutor and barely has the means to afford his son a MacBook. As a Mexican-American with close ties to the East Palo Alto community, Nagle said he is sympathetic to students of color who have it worse and face educational barriers, which have been exacerbated by distance learning.

Now, in a campaign centered around closing the achievement gap and fighting for racial justice, Nagle is making a run for the Palo Alto Board of Education.

Photo: Anais Nagle

Karna Nisewaner

As the mother of a second grader who struggles with reading, Palo Alto Board of Education candidate Karna Nisewaner recognizes the power of personalized education.

Her son, she told The Paly Voice during an interview late last month, has an Individualized Education Plan for his literary difficulties. Math, on the other hand, is his forte — Nisewaner said her son’s teachers uplift his confidence by encouraging his affinity for numbers.

“What his second grade teacher is doing is having him be a math helper, so he can feel really good about the place where he is strong,” Nisewaner said. “And then we can really work with him on the place where he isn’t strong.”

Photo: Karna Nisewaner campaign for Board of Education