Faced with a mess largely of their own making, Palo Alto Superintendent Kevin Skelly and the school board sought this week to clear the air, put aside emotion and defensiveness and chart a fresh and more deliberate course forward on the subject of high school counseling.
While Skelly's apology for not providing better leadership on the issue was welcome, it did not go nearly far enough in accepting responsibility for undermining the board and for fueling rather than calming fears within the Gunn community.
And the problems, as school-board member Barbara Klausner bravely and eloquently pointed out in a prepared statement Tuesday night, go far beyond the debate over whether Gunn's counseling system should be changed to look more like Paly's teacher-adviser model.
The counseling debate has exposed serious governance and transparency questions that demand attention from the board, the superintendent and the community.
Do we expect that board members in our school district function as decision-makers, prepared to give clear direction to staff through motions and votes, or does the board exist as primarily a sounding board that offers input and guidance to its professional staff?
When and if direction is given, is it the staff's duty to communicate and carry out the will of the board or does it have license to pursue its own desires and preferences?
Is the district truly committed to transparency of operations, so the public can have confidence that there are not private communications that are at odds with what takes place in public meetings?
And finally, what does Palo Alto's unwritten policy of site-based decision-making really mean? Under what circumstances may schools decide to have entirely different programs, policies and practices from one another?
Much of the rancor that exists within the school community today could have been avoided if there were clear answers to these questions and if all participants weren't in such a hurry to defend their positions and marginalize those with whom they disagree.
Some, especially school insiders (teachers, staff and parents who put in extraordinary hours to support teachers and kids,) blame the discord on the tactics of a parent group, We Can Do Better Palo Alto, and their leaders, Ken and Michele Dauber.
The Daubers have angered and alienated many with their biting and sometimes disrespectful criticisms, primarily directed at school staff, and they have scared away some potential supporters who don't have the stomach for such confrontation.
They have even been criticized, as has the Weekly, for digging into public records and uncovering the fact that Skelly and the school board have made a practice of discussing and in some cases formulating policy privately, outside of public meetings.
Much as we disapprove of some of the Daubers' tactics and personal attacks and the charged environment they have helped create, it is their work, data analysis and digging that has enabled the public to fully participate and to know what has happened behind the scenes. For that, they should be thanked not condemned.
As Klausner detailed in her statement (available on Palo Alto Online), the school district leadership, including Skelly and Gunn principal Katya Villalobos, said one thing to the board and then proceeded to communicate a different message to the Gunn community.
The manipulative tactics even extended to Tuesday's board meeting, at which some Gunn staff, students and parents appeared to not just praise Gunn's counseling system but to criticize Paly's.
Just as there is no excuse for some of the Daubers' behavior, there should be even less tolerance for staff stooping to this level.
So where to go from here? How are we to bring back civility to the debate, repair the credibility of staff and get back to addressing the need for changes in the counseling program?
Like a parent who chastises a child for his behavior and then proceeds to give him what he wants, the board is struggling to send a clear message of dissatisfaction to its staff while at the same time realizing it now needs to give staff time and space to re-group and navigate to a good solution.
In the end, the board signaled its intention to approve everything the staff wanted: more money and staffing for both schools and an open process for developing recommended changes in the Gunn counseling system by early next year, for implementation in the fall of 2013.
While we believe the board missed an opportunity to make a policy decision that would have focused Gunn's work over the next few months on how to integrate teacher advisers instead of leaving all possible options on the table, we understand why the polarization in the community made that difficult.
If there is one overarching lesson from the events of the last three months, it should be that openness and transparency empowers people by making everyone knowledgeable and capable of being equal participants.
When secrecy and hidden agendas are allowed to take root and become the norm in public agencies, even with the best of intentions, the legitimacy of decisions will be questioned and the outcomes will suffer.
Everyone involved has good intentions. Everyone wants what is best for the students. It's now time, as most school board members said on Tuesday, to set aside the emotions, hit the re-set button, and work with integrity and open minds to improve counseling services and improve the governance process.