Palo Alto High School's News and Features Publication

Verde Magazine

Verde Magazine

Verde Magazine

District departure: Three school board members end terms

Kensie Pao
TOGETHER WITH A PURPOSE — Palo Alto Unified School District school board members Jennifer DiBrienza (left), Jesse Ladomirak (middle) and Todd Collins (right) come together for a portrait. “There are no individual accomplishments,” Collins said. “We only act as a body and a school board member by themselves accomplishes nothing.”

For four-year-long terms, each of the five Palo Alto Unified School District school board members collaborate to balance budgets, acquire resources through tax allocations, hire the superintendent and create district policies and priorities to ensure all schools in the district run smoothly. 

For school board members Jennifer DiBrienza, Jesse Ladomirak and Todd Collins, these four-year-long terms are coming to a close this November.

While all three share a deep regard for the importance of education and a shared passion for enriching the PAUSD learning environment, DiBrienza, Ladomirak and Collins all have unique reasons that guided their journey to join the school board. 

DiBrienza’s school board journey began in 2015 after Palo Alto parents expressed frustration with the lack of educators on the board.

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Since she had children in the district and was a former teacher who worked with schools and districts to improve math education, these parents encouraged DiBrienza to run for the school board in 2016. Since then, she was re-elected in 2020 for a second term. 

Collins, who had children in the district, also decided to run for the school board in 2016, but his reasons were less intentional. 

“I often say that I took a wrong turn to wind up on [the] school board,” Collins said. “I got sucked into the [PAUSD] Bond Oversight Committee … they were having trouble getting people to serve on it. Then, I was chairman of the Bond Oversight Committee for a bunch of years, which got me involved with other committees at the district level and led me to run for the school board.” 

Unlike DiBrienza and Collins, in 2020, Palo Alto High School alum Ladomirak initially ran for the board during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ladomirak said that at the time she had four kids in the district, and was displeased and confused with the board’s inconsistent communication with the parents regarding their children’s education.

“It felt like the people talking about what’s happening are not actually experiencing what we’re actually going through as families,” Ladomirak said. “There was a sense of ‘We need people on the board who have kids in the district who are actually understanding the real world implications of decisions being made.’” 

We have more money than any public school district in the world in Palo Alto. How are we not teaching kids how to read?”

— Jesse Ladomirak, PAUSD school board representative

Ladomirak said she was also interested in creating a more equitable school environment for all students to thrive. 

“[I wanted to take part in] creating an environment where kids are happy and able to be kids,” Ladomirak said. “It was the culture of achievement and stress that I felt like I was seeing going on around me when I went to Paly.”

Similar to Ladomirak, DiBrienza’s work on the school board is also heavily focused on fostering equity in PAUSD schools. According to DiBrienza, the district has always served around 85% of kids well, but not the 15% made up of minority groups – students who are Black, Hispanic, Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian, Native American Indian/Alaskan Native, economically disadvantaged, English Learners,  and have disabilities. 

“[We value] equity when it comes to access to mental health services, equity when it comes to academics, and equity when it comes to belonging, and who feels at home here, who feels like it’s their school and who feels like an outsider,” DiBrienza said. 

Within the past eight years, the board has collaborated to pass policies and initiatives that align with this vision of equity for all students. 

In the last two years, we have been the most improved district in California for low-income students’ third-grade reading levels. The single most [improved] out of 1000 school districts in California.”

— Todd Collins, PAUSD school board representative

For example, the Every Student Reads Initiative was implemented in 2021 in response to the low reading level of minority students. Ladomirak said less than half of Black students in the district were reading at their grade level. 

“We have more money than any public school district in the world in Palo Alto,” Ladomirak said. “How are we not teaching kids how to read?” 

According to Collins, the Every Student Reads Initiative was focused on improving third-grade reading levels for low-income students, which the district has historically done a poor job on. This initiative has seemingly paid off, with reading levels already improving.

 “In the last two years, we have been the most improved district in California for low-income students’ third-grade reading levels,” Collins said. “The single most [improved] out of 1000 school districts in California.”

Along with the Every Student Reads initiative, the board also implemented the Systemwide Integrated Framework for Transformation Plan (SWIFT) to fight for student equity for minority groups.   

“It [SWIFT] is really sort of institutionalizing the idea that equitable education is something that requires a systemic transformation,” DiBrienza said.

According to the PAUSD website, the plan includes bias and equity teacher training, changes to curriculums that do not feel inclusive for minority students and student surveys on sense of belonging at school, attendance and equity issues. SWIFT has proved successful in 2023, as displayed in the PAUSD 2023 SWIFT Report Card.  The results show improvement in academic achievement and school climate. Reflecting on their time on the board, DiBrienza and Ladomirak both said that creating this plan to fight for equality was their greatest accomplishment. 

“Inclusion is just inclusion; equity is equity,” Ladomirak said. “You either recognize every human in our schools is valuable and important, or we don’t.” 

 Collins also said he believes equity is a pressing district issue, and therefore stands with these policies as well. However, when looking back on his work on the school board, he said hiring Superintendent Don Austin was his greatest accomplishment.

It [SWIFT] is really sort of institutionalizing the idea that equitable education is something that requires a systemic transformation.”

— Jennifer DiBrienza, PAUSD school board representative

“He [Austin] has built a team around him that has been very successful at improving the management practices of the district and focusing on the goals of the district,” Collins said. 

As their collaboration together on the board comes to an end, all three plan on parting ways to focus on different independent endeavors. 

Ladomirak said as she steps down from the board, she will simultaneously hand over the small construction business she owns to her employees, and venture out to change careers. 

On the other hand, Collins plans to continue working as Managing Director Tregaron Capital, a private equity firm. 

DiBrienza said she has been a delegate for the California Democratic Party and plans on continuing to serve on it, while also going back to her career of being a math educator.

“I miss being in classrooms with kids and working with teachers and parents,” DiBrienza said. “That’s probably what I’ll keep doing.”