Exchange between superintendent and school board member reveals tensions

Aug. 30, 2023

By Braden Cartwright
Daily Post Staff Writer

A text message exchange between Superintendent Don Austin and school board member Shana Segal has exposed tensions among the leaders of the Palo Alto Unified School District.

Austin sent Segal a series of long and angry text messages in May after her former campaign manager, Gayle Mc-Dowell, posted on social media calling for Austin to be fired.

Austin sent Segal a screenshot of the post and told her to state her views on him publicly.

Segal is the newest board member and is technically one of Austin’s bosses. The text message exchange happened at the end of last school year, when the district and Austin were facing a series of controversies.

Segal responded saying that she doesn’t control what McDowell writes, but Austin didn’t buy it.

“You are past the point of sitting silent Speak or you are Gayle,” he wrote in a text message on May 18.

“Seriously, just own it and it will be easier,” he said. “I am ready to go out soon. I can’t take the constant lies and attacks.

You guys can pick the next person. I’m sure it will be everything you guys want. I’m done.” Austin told Segal to say where she stands at the following board meeting, and that he may ask her directly if she doesn’t. “I will have an army watching,” he wrote. Counselors, principals, administrators and Austin’s neighbors and family members “are all lined up” to tune in, he said.

“I totally respect the person who will say something harsh face to face. It’s so much more endearing than the troll behind a keyboard. My advice as a perpetual mentor BE STRONG,” he wrote.

In response, Segal told Austin that she didn’t appreciate the tone of his messages, and she was happy to discuss issues on the phone or at a meeting, including a board meeting.

“I understand someone advised that response,” Austin said back. “I know how it works. You don’t understand the stress you have placed on me.”

Segal said that she just needed time to process and re-read Austin’s texts, and that nobody was advising her.

They set up a meeting with Board President Jennifer DiBrienza for the following week, and the conversation ended around 10 p.m.

Segal declines interview

Segal declined an interview yesterday. “This is a difficult situation and I do not feel comfortable commenting about it at this time,” she wrote in an email.

McDowell and Austin both sat down with the Post yesterday, and both accused each other of unfair attacks.

“This is not appropriate behavior for a leader,” McDowell said.

Austin said that he was struggling with his mental health at the time.

A student injured two teachers in a classroom, a kid posted a shooting threat on a door at Palo Alto High School and someone committed arson at Cubberley Community Center in the span of three weeks.

“Every day there was something. Some big, some small, but all compounding,” Austin said.

Austin said he never decompressed from the pandemic, when people on both sides of the school re-opening debate accused him of risking the lives of children.

“I’ve received zero apologies, and there was definitely some apology-worthy stuff,” he said.

Before texting Segal, Austin said he had confronted her about McDowell’s posts, and she denied any connection then too.

At the urging of DiBrienza, Austin took a three-day mental health break in his hometown of San Clemente in late May.

“I could barely get out of bed. I was hating life,” he said yesterday.

Austin said he set up filters in his email inbox to avoid reading negative comments, and then the district switched to a new email server while he was on his break.

Austin’s wife sent him the post from McDowell, and his kids were seeing hateful comments online, he said.

Austin said he apologized to Segal in person for making her feel uncomfortable and messaging her outside of their regular meetings. Segal accepted his apology, he said.

Austin and Segal reached some agreements on how to work together moving forward, but Segal canceled their weekly meeting yesterday, he said.

Austin said he is committed to the district and has no plans to leave. “If you wipe out a handful of hastily written text messages written during a very dark period of time, you wouldn’t see anything that looks different from any board member-superintendent (relationship),” he said.

Austin said he still isn’t sure where Segal stands on big topics, like math.

What McDowell says

McDowell said Austin is displaying traits of a narcissist when he makes himself a victim and blames others for how he feels.

“It’s a silencing tactic,” she said. “I get this impression that he thinks Shana should keep me in line.” McDowell has been a fierce critic of Austin and some of the district’s policies. She and dozens of other parents and students have commented at board meetings saying that the district is holding back students from advancing in math.

McDowell also didn’t like when the district announced last year that Ohlone Elementary School would no longer have a special education program.

McDowell’s son used to go to Palo Alto schools, but he was struggling with his mental health so she transferred him out. But McDowell said she still cares about what’s going on at the district.

There’s a pattern from Austin of disrespectful behavior and taking criticism poorly, she said.

“It’s created a culture where people are scared of him,” she said.

McDowell said Segal called her repeatedly the night that Austin was texting her, and both her and Segal were trying to figure out why he was so upset.

McDowell said her post on NextDoor, which talked about out how members of the public could convince the board to get rid of Austin when his contract expired this summer, was relatively bland.

The board ended up renewing Austin’s contract for another four years.

How this came out

McDowell relayed her conversation with Segal to parent Ginnie Noh, who filed a California Public Records Act request for the text message exchange.

Noh then forwarded the exchange to McDowell, and McDowell forward it to the Post last week.

Austin said the messages were released with the goal of embarrassing him.

“I guess that was successful to a degree,” he said.

“But that’s not the story. The story is mental health is fragile and can be chipped away at, even by people you would never call for advice about anything, and suddenly their opinions and their thoughts take up your headspace. But realizing that, getting help for it and sharing that story has led to an awesome outcome.”

Austin said he talked about his metal health struggles at a school year kick-off event with employees earlier this month to inspire them to get help. The district now has a full-time therapist that is dedicated to meeting with employees, and more than 50 employees have used her services.


  1. McDowell never knows when to quit. Austin admits getting mental health help, but she keeps on lobbing insults. No sense of decency on her part. When she calls him a “narcissist,” I’ve got to wonder if she’s projecting.

        • Hence the “previous teacher union” as in the one before he came to pausd. Not sure why this is confusing. My point is it’s not a “resilience” problem with pausd parents but a Don Austin problem that follows him. Just google “Don Austin intimidation” this is not a one time thing.

    • You realize Mcdowell and Austin weren’t in the same room/zoom/call, doing an interview simultaneously, listening to each other’s comments, right? Putting aside the question mark around whether this mental health episode existed, and whether mental health is a valid excuse for harassment/bullying, do you think Mcdowell should have predicted Austin’s explanation? What a weird comment.

      But speaking of not knowing when to quit, look at Dr Austin. Note how, in this article, Segal declined an interview, while Austin made little digs at her in it.

      Then the Paly Campanile does an article. Again, Segal declines that interview and Austin (perhaps emboldened by her silence?) voices MORE attacks. He could have taken his cue from her, realize that Segal was letting it drop and wasn’t attacking him or speaking about it. But nope, he’s back on the attack.

      Oh, and he apparently he’s already “confronted” her about what her friend said? And he STILL felt the need to berate her via text? Wow.

      Let’s also remember that this was all Austin attacking Segal for something SOMEONE ELSE did. Not what she did. What someone else did. This is very very weird.

  2. As a global spokesperson for workplace abuse issues, I am shocked and dismayed that this level of abuse happens in our own school district, and that nothing categorical has been done to remove Dr Austin. Defending him (or even staying out of the fray) is unconscionable in the wake of this blatant abuse.

  3. What exactly is a “global spokesperson for workplace abuse issues”? Did the UN give you that title? Is there only one such spokeswoman or many? Does the job come with a costume like Wonder Woman or Batgirl?

  4. I have actually been invited to speak at the UN on workplace harassment issues. I was considering going as Wonder Woman, but I felt the cloak might clash with my Batgirl purse.

  5. As mentioned by other commenters, Don Austin intimidating his boss Shana Segal with languages such as “I will have an army watching.” has absolutely no place in a respectful workplace and represents the toxic and fearful culture that Austin has permeated up and down the district.

    What hasn’t been pointed out yet, is the people who enabled this behavior and culture. The school board president, Jennifer DiBrienza, and the rest of the board, Jesse Ladomirak, Shounak Dharap, Todd Collins, are complicit in their role of enabling Austin’s repeated pattern of intimidation towards district staff, parents and students. They have shown a failure in judgment for allowing this behavior to continue time and again. They have been shown the texts that Austin sent Segal, and decided to renew his contract. Austin is a problem. But he’s merely a symptom of the larger problem that is this complicit school board.

  6. Bravo Shana Segal and Gayle McDowell for exposing this situation – it must not have been easy.

    Now it’s up to the rest of us to decide next steps. Do we let this guy continue, or do we remain complicit with bullying, harrassment, and settling for the status quo?

    How can we continue to support Shana Segal who is new to the Board and apparently the only one with integrity?

  7. For me, this was a test for the Board. DiBrienza called out to the community to come forward with proof of Austin’s bullying. I’ve never had a problem with him and have had a friendly relationship with him over the years. However, there is an undeniable stench of fear and implicit “toe the line” attitude that trickles down from Churchill to the school sites…and even to their parent volunteers. I was pretty bummed when I saw Austin’s clearly bullying texts to Segal, but I thought… if they’re going to defend this, then none of us speaking out will be safe. I couldn’t step forward or encourage other community members to step forward with their stories of bullying from district leaders, if Segal wouldn’t be supported. Segal didn’t know I asked for her texts until she got the request from the District. I hope people will keep that in mind when they will clearly try to retaliate against her. She is one of the kindest people I have only recently met and she would never have exposed this herself. It’s a pretty sad situation we are all in and I can’t say I’ve recently helped make it any better. But, I do feel better sharing the intentions of my actions here. I hope Shana won’t suffer because of them.

    • @Ginnie Noh– So you’re saying that Shana Segal had no knowledge that Gayle McDowell intended to give these texts to the press? Ms. Segal would never have exposed this herself and was given absolutely no heads up by her buddy and former campaign manager? Ms. McDowell just made the unilateral decision to do this?
      That’s either blatantly false or quite the betrayal on the part of Ms. McDowell. Which is it?

  8. Kudo’s to this paper for having the courage to break this important story!!!!

    We are seeing a pattern. A petition from 600 people called for Don Austin’s removal for multiple reasons including bullying. Rather than putting him on probation and calling a meeting of the community to hear the concerns of these 600 people, the president of the board, Jennifer DiBrienza, chastised the community stating “California has anti-retaliation laws and these are serious accusations…we hope that the petitioners will cease making those vague and unsupported defamatory claims”. [Portion removed. We don’t know if the reporting of another publication is accurate, so it is being removed.] It is a pattern of collusion behind closed doors, silencing and ignoring the parents and students leading to failed lawsuits and frustration that led to that petition. Why does Austin feel empowered to be able to bully Shana, his boss? Why is this board not supporting Shana against this bully?? Why did this board ignore 600 petitioners and hastily renew the contract of this superintendent without asking any questions? Austin stated “I will have an army watching,… Counselors, principals, administrators” and Austin’s neighbors and family members “are all lined up”. Clearly Austin believes he is immune because he has assembled an army within PAUSD to ignore the 600 petitioners. The one, gentle, honest, voice who was overwhelmingly elected because she was committed to listening respectfully to the needs of families, Shana, is unprotected. She is powerless without two more honest colleagues. Austin and the board members know this and permit this bullying that likely happens throughout the PAUSD system. Let’s get her honest colleagues, Palo Alto! We need brave, honest, school board candidates and votes for new board members in 2024. Anyone these board members support, avoid them like the plague. We need a change!

  9. You really have to admire Austin’s chutzpah demanding an apology from critics of his school lockdown policies. He went along with school closures, forced masking of children, and facilitated vaccinations for teachers, and considered student vaccine mandates but backed off because of the high numbers. That’s at least three big career defining L’s right there. Then he was slow to reopen and when he did, he required masks. More incompetence on his part. None of those measures made any scientific or common sense and negatively impacted the educations and mental health of many students. He could have been a hero by invoking home rule, opposing medical tyranny and explaining why children and most teachers are at less risk from Covid than many other regular activities like driving or bicycling to school, but instead chose the path of least resistance, like the rest of the herd.

    • Alvin’s off topic. This isn’t about Covid shutdowns, it’s about special needs families losing their school along with losers in a lawsuit over math joining forces to pressure the school board.

    • Just to note, Dr. Don Austin’s covid approach was studied throughout California by school districts eager to follow his lead. For example, San Jose Unified and Evergreen–both of which are huge, complex districts–looked to Dr. Austin as their guide.

  10. Austin is gaslighting- especially with the new article that came out today where he thinks his “foes” are the vocal minority. His “foes” voted in Shana in a landslide. His “foes” signed a petition with over 600 signatures. His “foes” are holding the district accountable to the LAW with respect to treatment of special education students and math kids. It reeks of white privilege when you act like a bull in a china shop, wreak havoc by doing whatever you want and breaking laws, and then crying foul when you are reigned in due to illegality. Also, perhaps his supporters are the minority? His letter of support only garnered less than 10 signatures, including two parents who have their kids entirely in private school! If they support him, why go private??

  11. “On Wednesdays we wear pink.” The coordinated effort to remove Dr. Don Austin is so basic. I find it hilarious that the PA Post calls out that a single person is posting comments under multiple pseudonyms.

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