Exchange between superintendent and school board member reveals tensions – Palo Alto Daily Post

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.

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