Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 11, 2006

Former principal says his departure mirrors current controversy

Joe Di Salvo tells Weekly why he left JLS Middle School under a cloud of mystery

by Alexandria Rocha

Joe Di Salvo, the former principal of Palo Alto's Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School who resigned under mysterious circumstances last year, has broken his silence.

Still visibly shaken by the events that led to his departure in 2005, Di Salvo said his situation has parallels to the current controversies engulfing the Palo Alto Unified School District. He presently is principal at a middle school in Gilroy.

"Lies and mistruths can never be part of a healthy organization," Di Salvo said.

He said a concern for his own safety led to an investigation that spiraled out of control and resulted in the district's attorney recommending that Di Salvo resign, based on reports that staff at JLS felt intimidated by him.

Members of the district's management team — which consists of principals, assistant principals and district office coordinators — have recently raised concerns regarding alleged unfair treatment from Superintendent Mary Frances Callan and her senior cabinet. The team has indicated it plans to form an independent association or affiliate with a union — with the association the first choice in the near term.

Di Salvo called the Palo Alto district "very sick."

Di Salvo's settlement with the district originally prohibited him from talking about the events that led up to his departure. But in an interview last week he said there are no longer any restrictions and has shared related documents with the Weekly.

The trouble began in spring 2005 when Di Salvo and a JLS teacher disagreed over whether a first-year educator should be retained at JLS for a second year.

Di Salvo thought the educator in question deserved a second year, while the teacher did not. Di Salvo brought the issue to Marilyn Cook, then assistant superintendent of human resources.

Cook said that as the school's principal, the decision belonged to Di Salvo.

In May 2005, Di Salvo stood in a hallway at JLS with another district employee when the same teacher walked by and gave Di Salvo a "prolonged threatening stare," he said.

Di Salvo felt that his personal safety had been threatened. He asked Cook to look into this concern.

Just three days later, he received a raving verbal evaluation for 2004-'05 from Callan and Cook. They said it was his best year yet and commended him for moving the school in a positive direction, he said. Di Salvo had been principal of JLS for three years.

But at the end of the evaluation, Di Salvo said Callan told him he was "too macho."

Di Salvo said he was taken aback by the comment and wasn't sure what it meant.

About a week later, Di Salvo received an e-mail from Cook, now associate superintendent of educational services, saying she checked into his safety concern.

"I spoke with (the witness) about your 'incident' of the angry look," Cook wrote in the e-mail. "She said her back was turned and she did not see the teacher's face."

An astonished Di Salvo followed up with the witness, who told him she had not spoken to Cook. Di Salvo asked the witness to write what she saw in an e-mail.

"It was a glare of unmistakable hostility," the teacher wrote. "She was squinting and appeared incredibly frustrated, mad and determined to get that across to you. ... I hadn't ever seen someone in a professional situation, with one's face, be so overtly unprofessionally hostile in a public setting."

Di Salvo called an emergency meeting with Callan the same day he received Cook's e-mail. Callan then told Di Salvo she was going to launch a full investigation into the safety concern, he said.

Louis Lozano, affiliated with the firm of Lozano and Smith in Monterey, was hired to conduct the inquiry.

"I spoke to numerous people. I would say more than 10 and less than 20. The district takes allegations of personal safety very seriously," Lozano told the Weekly. "In the end, I didn't find any credible evidence that there was any threat."

However, Lozano apparently found staff concerns with Di Salvo's leadership.

A letter Lozano sent to Di Salvo's attorney in Aug. 2005 stated that the "majority of the staff" at JLS did not trust Di Salvo's leadership, which was described as "heavily top down."

Di Salvo said Lozano interviewed 12 teachers over a two-day period. There are about 60 teachers at JLS.

In the letter, Lozano said Di Salvo sent "inconsistent and confusing messages" to the staff.

"One example of this is his statement in a faculty meeting that the district was planning to move away from the instructional supervisor model," Lozano wrote. Instructional supervisors are senior teachers at secondary schools who assist and help evaluate other teachers.

Lozano also wrote that Di Salvo did not consult with teachers about using a grant for science education to install a sink in the industrial tech classroom.

Lozano cited allegations about Di Salvo making statements in faculty meetings to the effect of, "You are either with me or against me," "I reward loyalty," and "I wish I had the power of a professional football coach where I could hire and fire members of the team."

He concluded the letter with "options" for Di Salvo's resignation.

"I am prepared to recommend to the board that the district pay Mr. Di Salvo six months of salary and benefits in exchange for his resignation from the district," Lozano wrote. They settled on one year.

On Monday, Lozano told the Weekly that Di Salvo was not terminated.

"He resigned," Lozano said.

When asked to comment on the Aug. 2005 letter, he said: "I don't have a recollection of the letter so I don't know what it said."

Callan deferred questions about Di Salvo to Lozano, saying in an e-mail to the Weekly that "this is a personnel issue and it is not appropriate for me to comment on it."

The settlement between Di Salvo and the district, reached in Oct. 2005, states there was a dispute over whether the district had "adequate or any cause to remove" Di Salvo from his position.

He was put on "special assignment" for 2005-06 and was to officially resign June 30.

Although Di Salvo said he is happy in his new position, he said the accusations in Lozano's letter, which Di Salvo called lies, remain hurtful.

"They never asked my side of the story or my view, and I felt I was a very good employee," he said.

Staff Writer Alexandria Rocha can be e-mailed at arocha@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by what next, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Nov 17, 2013 at 2:15 pm

A shining example of leadership shown by former board president Mandy Lowell. Lowell was president of PAUSD's board when this tawdry brawl took place. The school board allowed incidents like this to fester and events to spin out of control for years, resulting at the end in needing to dismiss (oh sorry, get the resignation of) the superintendent. This is another episode of our board being utterly asleep at the wheel, using poor or no management, and then having the entire thing explode in a hail of accusations, lawsuits, settlements, and bad feelings.

Which part of this episode or others are the result of good management by the PAUSD board under Lowell (and let's not forget Camille Townsend, who was on the board at this time).

Lowell, Townsend, Tom, Mitchell, and all the others who so badly have mismanaged the PAUSD for the past decade need to move on. diSalvo, Callan, Manderin Immersion, Everyday Math, OCR, bullying, lawsuits, Gunn Counseling, suicide cluster, Phil Winston [portion removed] and the list goes on.

The PAUSD board has been a dysfunctional mess for a decade, thanks to Lowell and her pals. How can we get it back on track? Callan doesn't receive the blame. She was an employee of the board. The board is responsible for the district. The board needed to step the plate long before we had a catastrophe. And now they are doing the same thing.


Posted by this story is 7 years old, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 17, 2013 at 5:24 pm

why post this now? the story is 7 years old!


Posted by Bring on the new bums, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Nov 17, 2013 at 8:04 pm

I love this kind of rant - "throw the bums out." And replace them with whom? Over the last two elections, there has been one over the minimum number of candidates needed to fill the seats. And why do you think the losers would be paragons of management?

Of course, this kind of lambasting, unconstructive criticism makes the problem worse - who wants to serve in a completely volunteer role when this is your thanks? Followers usually get the leaders they deserve.


Posted by what next, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Nov 17, 2013 at 8:15 pm

The current bums are part of a club of bums (including Lowell) who have all studied from the same playbook. Following the Callan sideshow, everyone decided that they had to adopt the "team" concept. What that meant in reality is that the team consisted of one player and five cheerleaders. The board is afraid to manage, because it doesn't want to be seen as not being a "team." That means that they abdicate the oversight role. If you disagree with that you have clearly never watched a board meeting, which plays out much like a middle school dance in which the board members anxiously wait with sweaty palms and smeared lipstick to be picked by the superintendent to slow dance.

That decision to abdicate any oversight role was based on the fact that the board allowed a spiraling crisis to get away from it with the last superintendent and that resulted in having to fire her in a big drama. Fearful of repeating that drama, this board (which contains some members who were there last time, Tom, Mitchell, and Townsend) is afraid to alienate Skelly because if he leaves under a cloud, then they will have screwed up twice, and that might make people think that there is something rotten in Denmark.

I laugh as I write that because folks, I think people already know that due to the multiple federal and state investigations which are the result of your inept lack of oversight.

We are in some kind of horrible downward spiral of lack of management. This is like the ENRON of school management fiascos. No management and no leadership is a prescription for increasing problems. The only thing we don't have yet is fiscal mismanagement but we may still get there. Stay tuned.


Posted by Can it get worse?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2013 at 9:17 pm

Seven years old, and yet this story is still relevant. Caving in to a few teachers at JLS and throwing DiSalvo to the side didn't help Callan as a few principals led a revolt against her. The board then didn't know what to do and brought in Skelly, a newbie, so as not to scare the principals again, but it sure was costly because this time because both the board and the superintendent didn't know what to do in times of crisis. They don't even know what to do with run of the mill issues. Fortunately, there were some key retirements of that original group of grumpy 2006 principals that took a great deal of heat off Skelly as he bumbled his way through Everyday Math in 2007-08 and then the suicides of 2009-10. However, the issues of 2011-12, brought to light by the Daubers, the Weekly, and by one Marielena Gaona, all publicly, seemed to indicate that something was very wrong with leadership in PAUSD. The last year, 2012-13 was an unmitigated disaster for the board, Skelly, his lieutenant Young, and his hand-picked special ed administrator Wade. Had it not been for he Weekly, we would have known nothing of what seems now to be less than honest, transparent behaviors in response to critics, bullying, civil rights, and anyone who challenges this system. Don't worry about the poster using fear of the unknown as a reason to keep the current board and superintendent. Those kinds of threats worked well a couple of years ago, including during the November 2012 board election, but they are almost comical at this point. If the grass was always greener, there would be no need for change. It is indeed difficult to serve on the board. Dana Tom will forever be immortalized on the internet. You can decide if that is a good thing or not. Barbara's extreme, bizarre views have been exposed through records searches, Camille's long rants are almost a punishment to my ears, and Melissa complains about this and that as to wash her hands of any responsibility. Heidi? Heidi. Next year is Skelly's last year. The teachers will miss him. Everyone won with him with raises, bonuses, and by everyone I mean teachers and principals, not kids.


Posted by Bring on the new bums, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Nov 18, 2013 at 9:33 am

@Can it get worse - You can throw the bums out, presuming that you can find any new bums to take their places, and the new bums can hire a new superintendent. Perhaps this will lead to outcomes you like better - my guess is not, but who knows?

But the one certain thing is that new "crises" will engulf us and that either you, or your future counter-part, will be calling for the heads of the new bums in 3-4 year's time, for the ruinous things they have done to our children.

Personally I find it better to work with the bums we have to get useful things done. And I hope that constructiveness will attract equally good or better bums to take on their jobs in the future.


Posted by aj, a resident of JLS Middle School
on Nov 18, 2013 at 2:26 pm

We never knew the previous principal, but maybe it's all for the best. The current one, Sharon Ofek, is very hard working and effective, and I know the staff feel supported because I've heard many say so.


Posted by Can it get worse?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2013 at 6:20 pm

Hmm, I think I'll continue to press for change instead of supporting failure after failure. I don't think it's realistic for student or parent victims of PAUSD, its special ed department, or its lawyers to turn the other cheek and ask for another helping. It certainly doesn't help those who are currently have or will be having an issue they see as an injustice to somehow work constructively with a staff that is above accountability. Kevin Skelly, Charles Young, Holly Wade, and the board that has enabled them do not deserve another Mulligan. I also don't think of these people as bums. They are just not good at what they do.


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