Superintendent Austin says critics are loud but don’t represent the views of most residents

A frame grab from the video Palo Alto school Superintendent Don Austin sent out to parents asking for their help to keep schools open.

By Braden Cartwright
Daily Post Staff Writer

Superintendent Don Austin says that the Palo Alto Unified School District has a group of around 30 people who speak out loudly and frequently, but they don’t represent most residents’ views on issues like math.

“Historically, the loudest, most frequent speakers – the people that have time to sit in front of a computer all day long and share their negativity – are seen as the voice of the community. I just don’t believe that’s true,” Austin said. “There’s a lot of people that do not think the way this angry little group does.”

Austin’s opponents say otherwise – that he disparages differing viewpoints and alienates certain groups, according to a petition signed by 590 people.

“Disagreement with Dr. Austin is often met with vindictive attacks and retribution, bringing down morale and leading to fear of speaking up,” the petition says.

Austin was talking about residents like Gayle McDowell and Rebecca Eisenberg, who have both called for him to be fired.

Back in May, Austin lumped board member Shana Segal in with the group after McDowell, who managed Segal’s campaign, criticized him on social media. The district released text messages between Austin and Segal last week.

“If you want me out just go for it. No need to pretend,” Austin told Segal.


The district went through a series of controversies last school year, resulting in emotional and organized backlash, with Austin at the center.

To name a few: the district brought in another child care provider, Right At School, to take classrooms from the Palo Alto Community Child Care. Austin ended up allowing the longstanding nonprofit to keep its space for another year.

The board approved third grade reading curriculum, even though most of the teachers who tested it didn’t like it and wanted another year.

A special education class was moved from Ohlone Elementary School, forcing some families to leave their neighborhood school.

And the district fought a lawsuit from four parents over how students are placed in math when they enter high school. Austin has defended the district’s policy, which he says automatically puts students a year ahead, while math advocates have pushed for more advancement.

Austin said that the controversies in the district get attention, but not the positive results that follow.

For example, 527 kids are getting free child care from Right at School, and reading scores are up, he said.

Austin said he no longer feels how he did in May, when he told Segal he was “ready to go out soon.”

Tired of ‘lies and attacks’

“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,” he texted Segal in May.

Austin said last that week he was in a dark place from years of stress building up. He is committed to the job but understands that it won’t necessarily last.

“I’m in year six in a school district that is tough. It is tough, and it is a place that is known for criticism and politics and people fighting to be the one that gets to have the loudest voice, he said. “But if you can manage that, it’s also a place that can do things nobody else can do. There’s a reason why we’re the number one school district in the state again.”

The petition that circulated this summer urged the board not to renew Austin’s contract.

“We need a superintendent who values transparency, respects diverse viewpoints, and collaborates across our community, and Dr. Austin is not the right person for this role,” the petition said.

The board wasn’t swayed and gave Austin a new contract that runs through 2027.


  1. Just need to point out the obvious. The article’s author wrote, “Austin’s opponents say otherwise – that he disparages differing viewpoints and alienates certain groups, according to a petition signed by 590 people.”

    Austin’s quote just above that proves this point. “Austin said. “There’s a lot of people that do not think the way this angry little group does.””

    He calls them an “angry little group”. Is that not disparaging? He is a narcissist who avoids blame for any negative outcomes.

    As a side note, it would be nice to have a superintendent who used proper grammar. “There’s a lot of people…” Send him back to elementary school to learn subject/verb agreement.

  2. Jimmy, that’s your beef against Austin? Really?

    Let’s break this down.

    He called his critics an “angry little group.”

    1. Yes, they’re angry. If this was a store, they’d be demanding to talk to the manager. They’re Karens.

    2. Little? 67,000 people live in Palo Alto and only 590 signed the petition. That’s not even one percent of the community. So, yes, the word “little” is accurate.

    Seems like Austin was correct.

    But that can’t be your beef. What are you really angry about? Or don’t you know?

    • Austin is a really poor choice as a superintendent of PAUSD and, by the way, I did not sign the petition and I know mamy who share my opinion who didn’t sign either. Some parents afraid of retaliation — this is part of the problem. So, no, I don’t think it is a small group. I am disappointed that he gets to stay again until 2027…

    • You cannot use the total number of Palo Alto residence to make your argument. Most of those do not have school aged children in PAUSD. And just as you cannot “assume” there are only 30 angry people, you cannot assume all others support the leadership. This article is one sided journalism and Trumpian. There are so many people afraid to speak up! JDB, said in a board meeting that she hasn’t heard of any complaints. Her blind an allegiance and defense of Austin’s bullying and gaslighting are exactly why people, especially teachers don’t speak up! What happened to Shauna is not an isolated incident and it was brushed under the rug by many in power. This is textbook toxic masculinity. Don’t convince yourself that the ends justify the means.

    • We only have about 10,000 parents in our school district. 600 people signing the petition within a week is 6% . That is not “little”.

  3. 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 proper math placement. 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?? But the real problem in my opinion is that Don is the puppet of the very progressive board, who is using him to push their hidden agendas while he takes the flak. For that, at least, I commend him for sticking it out so long. We need to vote in reasonable, moderate board members who have the best interest of our kids at heart and are not doing it for political gains.

  4. I am very sad to read this article. I am a parent in our school district, and I have seen first hand the disrespect and dismissal of parental voices by Don Austin and the board. If you have a large number (and 600 voices is a large number, given that we only have about 10,000 parents in the district total) of people saying they are not happy, that is worth paying attention to. I know parents who have been told if they are not happy – they should just put their kids into private shcool. I know parents who have been talked down to. I know parents who have been entirely stonewalled – how about writing a dozen emails and none of them being answered? How about showing up at the offices and not being seen after hours of waiting?
    Our children deserve better schools.

  5. Our schools are great, and we have excellent leadership in our district. As someone who has lived here since 1975, is a PAUSD graduate (kindergarten through high school), with a child in the PAUSD system, my perspective is that our schools are only getting better. I’m grateful to live in a city with a sound, excellent school system. Many others don’t have the advantages we have here, but we must always remain alert to the under-represented in our community. Which is exactly why I support Dr. Austin. He gets it: he’s fighting for all the kids, at large. The whole enchilada! Not just the “geniuses” with parents who have time for a fight.

    • With all due respect, our schools have been amazing for years and years. Hey, when I was in high school they were the best. But they are falling behind our neighbors now.
      I am very glad you find the school district a great place fro your child(ren). Hey, it’s mostly great for mine too! But its not for kids that need more support because hugely are struggling in math due to being placed into classes they are not ready for; or special ed kids who are being kicked out of their neighborhood schools, or kids who don’t get the buses their parens desperately need to get them to shcool so they can get to work. You know, the whole enchilada.

      • Is bussing a current issue that’s being debated? I hadn’t heard that. The choice schools is for sure a qualified debate [as to which is better for special needs students], and experts fall on both sides of the argument. And isn’t the math argument to accelerate math options for students doing too well in math?

        • Yes bussing for students in PAUSD has been an issue — check out some of the board meetings from last spring for several public comments on Stanford West bussing (around March/April).

          Regarding math — students who are ahead in math are not being placed properly. I think it is safe to say the district is now actively working to keep them back with 1) the removal of previously offered advanced math offerings and 2) unreasonable restrictions on how students can accelerate. Personally, I don’t understand why we put artificial roadblocks in place for kids who have clearly articulated their desire to learn math.

          Regarding Austin fighting for all kids — we need to celebrate where we are improving, but equally importantly, we must be honest about where we are not. This where Austin and his staff fall short — crafting poorly designed surveys and creating slide decks with eye candy that gloss over important details. Just because an issue is being rightly prioritized does not mean it is being effectively addressed.

        • Yes, bussing is an issue being debated.

          As for choice schools and special needs families: I am not sure you understand the debate here. The district chose to consolidate the moderate to severe disabilities classrooms to just a few schools. This perhaps made sense.

          However, the way that it was handled was very poor. The district did so abruptly, with little notice or conversation to the impacted families. Remember that many of these children have disabilities which makes sudden change very difficult.

          Additionally, the consolidation took away Ohlone from these children. Ohlone, with its focus on SEL and inclusion, and with having a farm, is particularly well suited to support special needs kids. The district did not seem to care that these students lost a program wonderfully suited for them. In doing so, they communicated to these families that these kids are just numbers, tossed around between schools with little care and concern. Also, they might well have broken the law.

          Math: The district is blocking kids in math, in many different way. The focus of the district should be on the kids who are struggling, but getting in the way of advanced kids doesn’t serve anyone. Over the summer, the district lost a lawsuit because they were refusing to do a math placement test in 9th grade, as legally required. Fighting this lawsuit didn’t help struggling kids; it just harmed advanced kids. And ultimately, everyone suffers when the district wastes money on legal fees; why didn’t they just comply with the law once the issue was reported to them? No; instead the fought it, lost… and then lied to the public about it.

          Even if you support holding back advanced kids for some reason, you should oppose the district breaking the law and then lying when they lose a lawsuit.

        • What does “doing too well in math” means? How can anyone be doing too well in school, regardless of the subject?
          And yes, bussing is still an issue; and special Ed is too.
          Dr Austin paints parents who are legitimately concerned about various issues as bored entitled loudmouths who have nothing better to do. This could not be further from the truth.

  6. First, our problem as a community is a divisive board leadership that presents student education and wellness as a zero-sum game. Pretends they are serving the underseved. Make policies aimed at only supporting the privileged middle but are ineffective all across. Promote conspiracies on how the very presence of some students is “toxic” to others. Austin is their tool and his style is what is needed to shove down this type of agenda. The only solution is to replace that leadership.

    @TR, as for the numbers. Aren’t you aware that most people, especially those impacted by a biased power structure, tend not to protest? They fear retaliation or just think they can not change anything. Let’s look at the responses to PAUSD illegal and dishonest conduct regarding math placement and access.

    — 25 Gunn students (board meetin in August) and about 12 Paly students (in Spring) spoke up. Are they ~37 “little angry students”?

    — 50 directly impacted Paly students signed a petition re MVC cancelation. Is it ~100 “little angry students”?

    — In a survey, nearly HALF of all HS our students expressed that they would have taken post-BC calc advanced math if they could only access it. Data shows that 46% of current 6th graders qualified by an objective measure to be in “7th grade” math (and be on track to take advanced math in HS). But only 12% were placed. PAUSD is blocking access.

    So perhaps 37 students spoke at board meetings. But nearly HALF of our secondary school students are adversely impacted. Those that speak or sign petitions are only the tip of the iceberg.

    Leadership unfortunately vilifies students and does not ack their needs. They are told to be “resilient” and accept whatever dishonest and illegal and non-evidenced policies they hand down. They say “let them have cakes” (go to private school. go away). So kudos to the amazing students that stood up and spoke in this environment.

      • Settle down, Patricia. I disagree with much, if not all, of what EC has written. But we have many members of our community for whom English is a second language. Let’s be mindful of that.

    • The results of that survey have repeatedly been taken out of context and bent to the will of whoever was invoking them. The survey question you are referencing here is quite vague. Students were asked to respond to the following statement: “If I could take classes beyond AP Calculus BC in high school I would/am.” 21% responded “somewhat likely” and 22% responded “extremely likely.” You have conveniently lumped these two groups together and summarized by stating “nearly HALF of all HS students expressed that they would have taken post-BC calc advanced math if they could only access it.” Some of those respondents actually were taking a math beyond BC calc at the time! Others might imagine this question to actually mean “if you could AND you were qualified….” Because many students who hypothetically responded that they would if they could, are not actually considering whether they are prepared and could actually perform well in a class beyond Calc BC. So please stop twisting these results to suit a specific agenda.

  7. Foes!! Should not be a concept the superintendent, of a public school has! He is NOT an elected official, like our past President who calls out his enemies!! Austin is an employee of the school district to work for and represent ALL students and families, not just the ones that agree with him. I can’t even believe this is a debate in our “bubble”. I guess the bubble has popped even here! We are normalizing bully tactics!
    @Patricia- really “you flunked grammar”! Wow, insightful.

  8. Based on these semiliterate comments, it looks like Austin was hitting close to home when he said: “Historically, the loudest, most frequent speakers – the people that have time to sit in front of a computer all day long and share their negativity – are seen as the voice of the community. I just don’t believe that’s true.”

    Truth hurts, doesn’t it?

  9. When I read: “Foes!! Should not be a concept the superintendent, of a public school has!” I thought Yoda from Star Wars was the “shocked parent.”

  10. Austin appears to be off by at least an an order of magnitude on the “angry little group”. Austin says no more than 30. Petition says at least 500. The math people make a clear target because of the lawsuit, so the district tries to dismiss all the noise under this one umbrella.

    If you talk to folks from disparate corners of the community, the first common thread is a pattern of unprofessional behavior from Austin — one that goes well beyond the debate of advanced math. This includes lying and intimidation by Austin and his top staff — behavior which many people have faced for bringing different topics to the attention of 25 Churchill. The text messages to Shana are yet another example of this unbecoming behavior… towards a board member, no less! Unfortunately several of the other board trustees enable Austin by non-action and obfuscation.

    The other issue is twisting of facts and data to push a narrative that all of PAUSD’s programs are going flawlessly. The Every Student Reads Initiative is a prime example where the data was presented in a very misleading way, glossing over the fact that the same diagnostic is used in the Fall and Spring. There is no doubt this is an important area for PAUSD to concentrate resources, but we need honesty and acknowledgement of shortcomings.

  11. So we’re going to start picking our superintendent based on polls and anonymous online comments? We elect a school board to decide whether to hire or fire the superintendent because they’re closer to the situation, they’re privy to more information than these intellectually challenged commenters. Why base a decision on facts and experience when you can rely on the instincts of a mob?

    • The board and Dr. Austin have been unable to get their facts straight too many times. Board members have repeatedly made claims that are provably false. Data is presented in misleading ways to obtain rubber stamps from the board. To put it simply people do not trust Austin or the board. There are many reasons to believe they will not operate with integrity.

  12. It’s rich of Mr. Austin who sends threatening texts to Board members to call parents who are genuinely concerned about the good of the district as angry little group. I have observed that folks who are supporting the current leadership (while ignoring various shortcomings) are folks who grew up in PA and hesitant of any change in the city. To some extent I can understand it. No matter how bad your hometown is everyone seems to have an attachment and want to keep it the way it was when they grew up. New residents (mostly immigrants) want to change it for the better are chastised. Keep in mind that neighboring cities are more receptive to change than PA and are improving compared to Palo Alto.

    Some of the blind support for Mr Austin from this forum reminds me of what Mr Trump said. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose any voters.” We have become such a divided community that instead of criticizing our leaders when they are obviously on the wrong, we double down our support.

    To the person who pointed out grammar errors. Please note (PAUSD board meeting docs for 9/12) that 18% of PAUSD students (all grades) are below grade level compared to 21% of the students are below grade level for Math. So, I am sure you would be more concerned about the deteriorating standards of Math in the district.

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