Skelly presented results of a wide-ranging survey on what "stakeholders" really want for the schools.
The results contained bitter pills for some, including a suggestion that some parents drive teachers to quit their jobs and a strong sentiment that introducing foreign-language classes to elementary schools is a bad idea.
In a 90-minute presentation, Skelly presented data from nearly two months of surveys and interviews with district stakeholders from principals to freshman to parents.
He hashed out in more concrete detail a document that until now has been only murkily described — the district's upcoming Strategic Plan revision.
Often called a road map of priorities for the district, a well-crafted Strategic Plan would help avoid disagreements such as the divisive Mandarin-immersion debate of the previous year and earlier, Skelly and school board members have said.
The plan, currently being written, would guide the district for 12 years, until 2020, with revisions every four years.
On Tuesday, Skelly presented major survey findings and outlined four areas of focus for the plan based on interviews with administrators: academic excellence, staff recruitment and development, fiscal management and governance.
The presentation was a discussion requiring no vote. The board will discuss the plan again April 22.
The survey had a heavy response, Skelly reported: 3,173 parents, 526 students, 400 teachers, 40 administrators and 130 other school staff participated.
While the vast majority of respondents, 92 percent, said schools prepare students well for college, only 57 percent felt career counseling was sufficient, Skelly reported.
Students in particular listed improving college and career counseling as a goal.
Such concerns have been present in every district in which he's taught, yet they merit further attention and improvement effort, Skelly said.
A point of major agreement among students, teachers and parents was attracting and retaining the best teachers.
Teachers themselves asked for more training and development programs.
Teachers also cited parents as the biggest reason why some leave the district, followed by salary and location.
Yet teachers who left the district weren't asked to comment — only those currently employed, so the answers were speculative rather than personal, board member Camille Townsend pointed out.
Active parents are an asset, she said. The district's mission statement should acknowledge their role and the plan should be flexible enough to allow parent groups to spontaneously bring new ideas before the board, she said.
Parents play an enormously important role, Skelly agreed, and their approval of the plan is also necessary for its upcoming success.
Yet the survey wasn't cut-and-dried.
Board members, including student board member Andrew Tesler, criticized its results as unclear because parent groups were not broken down by elementary, middle and high school. Different parents have very different concerns, Townsend said.
After outlining the survey results, Skelly reviewed priorities under the four main focus areas of academics, teaching, budget concerns and governance.
Possible initiatives included making sure all students are prepared for college, improving teacher recruitment and creating "norms of engagement" for parents and district staff. A full list is available on the school district's Web site.
Goals are important, but pegging them to a measurement is crucial, board member Melissa Baten Caswell said.
Throughout the meeting, she repeatedly called on Skelly and representatives from McKinsey & Company — the consulting firm working pro bono with the district — to write goals based on desired results, rather than as wishful generalizations.
More specific timeline, cost and related information will be ready for the April 22 meeting, Skelly vowed.
He also said that although parents pushed for foreign languages in elementary schools, district principals did not.
In one meeting, he asked principals to place a green dot next to productive ideas and a red dot next to distracting ideas. Not a single principal placed a green dot next to foreign languages, but there were 26 red dots next to the program, which parents pushed for in the wake of last year's board decision to start a Mandarin-immersion program.
A study group of parents, teachers and administrators reported in fall that introducing foreign languages would mean lengthening the school day, rescheduling certain classes and spending at least $1 million annually.
While the decision ultimately lies with the board, Skelly and the principals think the attempt to introduce such a program would be a hindrance to more important goals, he said.
The district will present a nearly completed Strategic Plan May 9, he said.
In other business, the board:
Heard an announcement that Mary Pat O'Connell will replace Barbara Welch as principal of Nixon Elementary School next year.
O'Connell has been principal of Highlands Elementary School in San Mateo since 2001 and said she has lived in Palo Alto for 20 years.
Heard a presentation about new courses for Palo Alto High School, which board members will consider at their April 22 meeting. A more basic "Integrated Science" course is proposed to better introduce students to higher-level science courses. Other proposals include four years of Mandarin courses and an advanced placement course in Macroeconomics.