Palo Alto Weekly

Notes & Comments - October 25, 2006

Our Town: A district under siege

by Don Kazak

Bad news seems to come in bunches. Hewlett-Packard Co. officials painfully learned last month that you can't put the toothpaste back into the tube.

Board members and administrators at the Palo Alto Unified School District are in the process of learning the same difficult lesson.

Hewlett-Packard is Palo Alto's corporate icon, a company that started Silicon Valley and helped define Palo Alto as we know it.

The excellence of the school district is the reason many families move into the community.

It's hard to say which has been more difficult to watch unfold, the HP spying scandal or the district's revolt of many of its principals and vice principals against Superintendent Mary Frances Callan.

The school board seems divided over Callan, although much of the attention now is on how an internal difficulty has gone so public.

The easy answer to that question is that there is little ever really private about a public institution, nor should there be.

The school board met in closed session twice recently to discuss a Sept. 6 memo from representatives of the 48 members of the district's Management Team, including principals and vice principals but not including the superintendent or her three-member senior cabinet.

Along the way, some attention shifted from the content of the Sept. 6 memo to the Weekly getting a copy of it Sept. 27 -- left on a bench in south Palo Alto -- and writing stories about it, with some people angry that the memo became public.

A significant number of principals and administrators said they didn't trust their boss, Callan, anymore. The lack of trust is the top concern in the Sept. 6 memo.

Well, with 48 people on the Management Team, the Sept. 6 memo was going to be the worst-kept secret in town. Besides, there is a real question whether the Sept. 6 memo may be a public document under the California Public Records Act, which would make moot the argument about the document becoming public. Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, believes the Sept. 6 memo was a public document the moment it was created, or at least delivered.

Who is trying to hide what, and for what reason? Those questions get journalists going better than a jolt of caffeine in the morning.

The principals and others on the Management Team must have had tremendous courage to voice what were long-standing concerns. A document produced Sept. 6 was thought about and planned long before that -- reports of concerns had circulated for months.

The controversy has prompted letters to the editor and postings on Palo Alto Online's Town Square forum, which raised issues of trust and Callan's continued viability as superintendent. The school board is considering bringing in an outside consultant to do fact-finding and perhaps some mediation.

Former school board members John Barton, Cathy Kroymann and John Toumy wrote a letter to the Weekly defending Callan, and were themselves then criticized for taking the stand they did. Another former school board member, Carolyn Tucher, was one of 72 people who signed a petition to the school board urging its members to pay heed to what the Management Team is saying.

As one school official said, the important thing now is how to move forward regain mutual trust.

The question is whether the situation is fixable. After the Weekly obtained the Sept. 6 memo, the Management Team was called into a session by Callan and her cabinet the next day, Sept. 28. According to one of the participants, that meeting was beyond ugly.

One cabinet member, Business Manager Jerry Matranga, reportedly accused the Management Team of being "gutless" and then angrily threw a bottle across the room at a trash can. Other cabinet members reportedly yelled at the Management Team members.

A solid majority of the Management Team reportedly stands behind the Sept. 6 memo, although some members are upset by all the public attention.

It's a difficult situation, but ultimately the school board is accountable to the public, as is Callan, through the board.

It's not the board's district nor Callan's. It's our district.

Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be reached at dkazak@paweekly.com.

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