Toddlers and poster-bearing protesters added sounds and colors to normally staid surroundings as the Palo Alto Board of Education convened Tuesday for its first meeting of the 2013-14 school year.
The toddlers belonged to Kim Diorio, Palo Alto High School's new principal. Diorio held the hand of the 4-year-old and her husband John held the 18-month-old as Diorio was introduced to the board.
The four protesters were family members and a friend of a special education student currently in a dispute with the district over the student's school placement.
The student's sister tearfully complained to the board of "miscommunication and mistreatment" by district officials, including a failure to provide documents in simple Spanish and one district official asking the family whether they were legally in the United States.
"A lot of these (document) translations you can't understand unless you've been working in that field," the sister said, complaining of too many technical terms. "My point is we need to have better understanding."
The sister declined to comment on the status of the family's negotiations with the district but said the student is home pending resolution of the dispute.
Two new non-voting student representatives on the board, Addie McNamara of Paly and Jarrod Mock of Gunn, were welcomed and praised by board members for being "articulate."
In her rundown of back-to-school dinners, orientations, rallies and freshman elections McNamara mentioned two back-to-school streaking incidents, noting that the students who were caught received suspensions.
"Also interesting and different is a kind of a crackdown on that misbehavior," she said.
Mock's recitation of Gunn orientation programs and homecoming preparations included mention of an attempted suicide of a recent graduate over the summer.
"This is another issue we're continuing to work on," he said in a reference to deaths by suicide of three Gunn students, and one student about to enter Gunn, in 2009.
After introducing Diorio, new Terman Middle School Principal Pier Angeli LaPlace and a spate of other new hires or promotions, Superintendent Kevin Skelly said this year's enrollment appears to be "slightly up maybe a little less than conservative projections." Official 2013-14 enrollment will be measured on the 14th day of school and reported in September, he said.
Skelly ran through back-to-school photos that included kindergartners on their first day of school and scores of bicycling students and parents entering campuses across town.
Bob Golton, supervisor of the district's massive facilities bond construction program, showed photos of new buildings including two-story classroom structures at Gunn, JLS Middle School and Fairmeadow Elementary School, a new library at Terman, new classrooms at Jordan, a new gym at Gunn and major though not-yet-complete construction at Paly and Duveneck Elementary School.
"It's been 50 or 60 years since there was this volume of construction in our school district and that pales in square footage to what's under way currently at multiple sites," Board Vice-President Barb Mitchell said.
The projects are being paid for through the $378 million "Strong Schools" bond approved in 2008 by more than 77 percent of district voters to modernize facilities and create capacity for rising enrollment. The money is about half spent.
A resident of the Gunn attendance area complained that construction of a Miranda Avenue drop-off point for Gunn students is a year behind schedule.
"You should get reports about 'Are we on budget and are we on time?' not just these nice pictures," he said, describing Gunn's current traffic situation as "an accident waiting to happen."
Board members asked Golton to provide a grid of construction projects that would clarify which ones are behind schedule.
As board members discussed school-district priorities for 2013-14, district critics Kathy Sharp and Ken Dauber said officials had failed to report on outcomes of priority initiatives from previous years.
Citing high-school counseling and district homework policy, Sharp said, "Outcomes which were specified last year, but not completed, seemed to have dropped from the list of goals for this year. This lack of accountability is not acceptable."
Board members asked staff to provide a clearer accounting of the status of previous years' priorities.
Skelly said major issues likely to consume substantial board time this year include a decision on the district's academic calendar for 2014-15 and beyond; negotiations with the city of Palo Alto on the future of the district-owned Cubberley site; high-school counseling programs and new, stiffer graduation requirements that kick in for the graduating class of 2016.