Editor's Note: Weekly reporter Elena Kadvany is reporting from Aurora, Illinois.
"Frankly, I like the idea of getting back to public education," McGee said.
He is currently head of school at the Princeton Institute for Mathematics and Science, an educational start-up that he spearheaded in the last year with the backing of a Chinese foundation. His first day on the job there was last July; the school opened in September.
Four members of the Palo Alto school board, along with a group of district education officials, spent most of Thursday at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, Illinois, where McGee served as president from 2007 to 2013, interviewing administrators, teachers and other education officials he's worked with.
Board President Barb Mitchell said they met with about 15 people, including current IMSA faculty, officials from the Wilmette Public Schools district, where he was superintendent for six years before joining IMSA, and the president of the teacher's union in Wilmette.
"At least one of those people, if not more, had submitted reference letters (previously), but the difference of meeting with someone face-to-face and reading a letter that, who knows, could have been crafted over several days and with a thesaurus -- you just got a real feel for clearly the enthusiasm they have for this individual," Mitchell said.
Since the only persons who had previously interviewed McGee were the five school board members, Mitchell said Thursday's visit was an opportunity for other Palo Alto school leaders to vet him.
In addition to school board members Mitchell, Melissa Baten Caswell, Heidi Emberling and Camille Townsend, others on the trip were: Charles Young, associate superintendent; Sharon Ofek, principal of JLS Middle School and president of the Palo Alto Management Association; Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educators Association and an Addison Elementary School kindergarten teacher; Meb Steiner, president of the California School Employees Association and Barron Park Elementary School special-education instructional aide; Susan Usman, incoming president of the Palo Alto Parent-Teacher Student Association; and Asha Guha, incoming president of the Partners in Education Foundation.
"They prepared their own questions that reflected the lens of the groups they represent," Mitchell said. She added that a common theme did emerge of their range of questions: how McGee makes decisions.
"It's not a situation where we're starting a new school or a school district or are in need of dramatic reform," she said. "So how does he work with employees? How does he work parents? How does he work with foundations? How does he work with community members? (And this is) all in the context of improving the experience for our students."
McGee said he was particularly impressed with the quality and depth of the Palo Alto entourage's questions Thursday, a deciding factor in his acceptance of the position.
"I walked away from that thinking, these are the kinds of people I would like to serve, with whom I can collaborate to make a difference," he said. "I came away feeling really positive about the final decision to sign on."
Mitchell said McGee's wide-ranging career arc from superintendent of an Illinois public school district to state superintendent overseeing 900 school districts to the head of an elite, publicly-funded STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) boarding school is perfectly aligned with Palo Alto's priorities and needs.
"I think when I first saw his resume, I looked at it as, this is what you would want to design if you were trying to build the background of someone for Palo Alto," she said.
She referenced his multiple efforts to encourage innovative STEM programs at IMSA and a reading initiative he launched in Wilmette after a report, conducted by the school district, found a widening gap between boys' and girls' academic performance.
"The short answer is his values will resonate really well in our district community," Mitchell said, "and it's not just talk. Theres a lot of walk there and it's evident in his accomplishments."
Mitchell said he did not apply for the Palo Alto position. One of the consultants at Leadership Associates, the search firm the district hired to conduct the superintendent search process, had a "longstanding relationship" with McGee and recruited him.
She said "the first thing on his list of to do's" is to set up meetings with district leadership and Palo Alto community leaders, as well as help Superintendent Kevin Skelly make appointments for the vacant positions in the district. Both the director of elementary education and chief technology officer jobs are open.
She said the district still has to finalize McGee's contract. The board will meet in closed session on Tuesday, May 27, craft a recommendation and finalize that before ratifying the contract and officially approving the appointment.
McGee's appointment will be up for discussion at the board's next meeting on June 3 and for action on June 17, the last meeting of the school year.
View McGee's full CV here, as posted on the school district website.
Watch an interview with McGee and IMSA student newspaper co-editor-in-chief about his early retirement from the Illinois boarding school.
Watch an interview with McGee and an IMSA student journalist following a controversial opinion article criticizing the IMSA administration's handling of student stress.
This story contains 995 words.
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