He's a charismatic, gregarious people person who seemingly knows all 650 IMSA students, as well as faculty and staff, by first name. He's full of energy, with a larger-than-life presence and trademark beaming smile that revived the school — and subsequently left a gaping hole after his early departure in 2013. He's thoughtful (sending handwritten notes to staff at major milestones, like the birth of a child) and encouraging (so much so that one teacher who was considering leaving IMSA decided to stay after McGee came on board). He's a hands-on "ideas guy" who loves experimentation and taking on new challenges. He has an open-door policy that made IMSA students, teachers and staff alike feel like they could go directly to him with any concern or idea.
"I thought long and hard about Max, and the best thing I can say is I have never heard anyone say a bad word against him," said Peg Cain, who has taught English at IMSA for 12 years and known McGee for a total of 20. "That's an amazing thing at this place. He is loved."
Beyond his effervescent charisma, you'll also hear that he knows how to get things done. Programs that people had trouble implementing before his tenure were put into place after he came on board. He moved IMSA's new strategic plan forward. Much-needed money for the state-funded school was brought in, with McGee, as former Illinois state superintendent, already well-versed at rubbing shoulders with legislators in the capital, Springfield.
This beloved, accessible — and ambitious — administrator is the person the Palo Alto Unified School District has selected as its new superintendent, with the school board set to approve his hiring on June 17. McGee will replace Superintendent Kevin Skelly, who announced in an email in February that after seven years, he would resign effective June 30.
The board officially offered McGee the job — and he accepted — after visiting IMSA on May 22. Board members met with McGee and his past colleagues, who said they were asked to provide concrete evidence as to the type of administrator and person he is.
School board President Barb Mitchell said they left Illinois knowing that McGee — who has held positions at almost every level of education, from teacher to principal to district and state superintendent — was the right choice for Palo Alto.
"I was impressed by the fact that Dr. McGee knew the names of every student and staff member who walked by," Mitchell said. "That would be hard to orchestrate. He's been away for a year.
"That said a lot about the depth of his relationships. He likes people, and they like him."
She said she was impressed by his commitments to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and to innovative programs — student research projects, international collaboration, new technologies and a private, international boarding school in New Jersey that he's headed for the past year. That combined with his tangible efforts to support struggling students — such as a reading initiative launched in a district where boys' reading levels in the public school were lower than female students — make him a prime fit for Palo Alto.
"The short answer is his values will resonate really well in our district community, and it's not just talk," Mitchell said. "There's a lot of walk there, and it's evident in his accomplishments."
Though he admits he has much to learn about the Palo Alto school district, McGee himself has identified three top priorities that mirror those parents and education officials have voiced along the way as necessary for the new superintendent.
He told the Weekly in Aurora that he plans to look at Palo Alto's achievement gap and make sure all students, "especially those who are underserved and underrepresented," have opportunities and access. Secondly, he wants to move the district's strategic plan forward — something he accomplished at IMSA in a way the previous president hadn't been able to, board members there said.
His third priority: open, transparent communication.
"I think at least from what I read in the papers, it's important to have transparent communication," he said, referring to Palo Alto. "And I think you've found out during your visit here that I'm kind of about that. I'm really open, and I believe in that."
An 'Energizer bunny'
Though McGee's colleagues may never have heard a negative word spoken about him, one aspect of his career has caught people's attention: McGee's tendency to move from job to job and organization to organization.
From his start as a Missouri teacher in the 1970s to his three years as Illinois state superintendent and his headship of the private Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science, McGee has held at least 10 jobs throughout his career. His longest tenure in a job was seven years.
In a March 2013 interview with IMSA student newspaper, The Acronym, McGee admitted that his greatest weakness is a lack of focus. (See https://www.YouTube.com/AcronymIMSA for video of interview.)
"I find it very easy to focus on too many things at once," he said. "There are times when I really need to sit and just focus on one topic and have two or three priorities versus five, six or seven priorities."
IMSA interim president Cathy Veal, who's been with the school since its inception in 1986, observed: "(He's an) Energizer bunny. ... He loves ideas. You can throw 50 ideas at him, and he'd be fascinated with all 50 and want to learn about it."
McGee characterized his career trajectory in terms of tackling new projects.
"I'm a guy that likes to get things done. ... When we've made some improvements ... I like to do new things and new challenges. That's just who I am."
At times, he has left a job before his contract expired, catching some colleagues, but not all, off guard. He left the state superintendent job after three years. He left IMSA with one year to go on his contract. He is leaving his current school, Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science (PRISMS), after one year.
Those closest to him at IMSA were surprised when he announced his resignation in 2013. Veal said she and McGee had often discussed "responsible succession planning" and a staggered retirement schedule that would always leave someone well-prepared to serve in the top administrative positions. At the time, the principal and chief financial officer were also on their way out, and Veal herself was considering retirement.
She said she reconsidered her plans after McGee's announcement.
"I reconsidered IMSA's needs because it's in my DNA, 20-something years," she said.
However, longtime IMSA board member Steven Isoye, currently a superintendent of another Illinois school district, said that McGee's decision was not all that surprising, as he had finished his work in implementing the school's strategic plan.
"There's always the potential that someone might decide at that point in time to do something else if the opportunity came forward," Isoye said.
McGee's career path has garnered notice from people with a vested interest in his future in Palo Alto.
At the Palo Alto school board's May 27 meeting, its first after the Illinois visit, former longtime Palo Alto High School college adviser Leslie Braun urged the board to think deeply about why McGee is interested in taking the helm in Palo Alto.
"Why is Dr. McGee interested in PAUSD, after only a year at this (PRISMS) school? Please consider carefully whether this candidate is the right fit for PAUSD," she told the board.
Mitchell was quick to tell Braun that McGee, like three out of four semi-finalists for the job, did not apply for the position but instead was recruited. A consultant at Leadership Associates, the firm the district hired to conduct the superintendent search, personally knows McGee and suggested they look at him as a candidate.
McGee told the Weekly as much during an interview in Aurora the week before.
"I was not really putting paper out and trying to find jobs all over the United States," McGee said. "This was like, 'Wow, this would be a tremendous fit.' I am 63 years old; I still have plenty energy and I'm proud of the single school I started in Princeton, but what a great opportunity to serve and to lead in a high-performing district that still has room to improve."
From a Missouri classroom to the Illinois capital
McGee, who holds a master's and doctorate in educational administration from The University of Chicago and a bachelor's in political science from Dartmouth College, started his career as a teacher in Southfield, Missouri. In 1975, he joined the Illinois school system, and he stayed until 2013, when he resigned from IMSA to launch PRISMS.
McGee was a teacher in Darien, Illinois, for five years before becoming a principal in 1980. In 1986, he took a superintendent position at Aptakisic-Tripp District 102 in Buffalo Grove, followed five years later by the same job at a larger K-8 district — Deerfield School District 109 in Deerfield.
In 1998, McGee became Illinois state superintendent of education, an appointed position overseeing two million students in 900 school districts. His crowning achievements during that time include implementing new Illinois Learning Standards, much like the nation's new Common Core; helping to put a new state assessment program into place; incorporating the ACT into the Prairie State Examination for the first time; and emphasizing and supporting through legislation and funding early childhood development and reading programs, in particular.
Perhaps the more significant impact of his time as state superintendent was the political savvy and skilled familiarity he gained with the state legislature and the way things ran in the state's capital.
"Here in Chicago, as I'm sure you know, politics is a blood sport," said IMSA's Cain, who as president of a nonprofit education foundation in Chicago also worked with McGee when he was state superintendent. "Max deals with it as well as anyone I know, and it looks like that skill set might come in handy (in Palo Alto)."
Cain said the state superintendent who preceded McGee faced the challenging charge of implementing a new alternative-certification program but that McGee was "very supportive about spreading it" when he came on board soon thereafter.
In August 2001, McGee announced he would not seek renewal of his current contract as state superintendent, which ended in that December. A news article from the Daily Herald in Illinois said there had been speculation the board may have been considering firing him. McGee told the Weekly that the board faced pressure from then-Governor George Ryan after McGee successfully fought Ryan on a deal to funnel "a significant amount of public money into private and parochial schools."
However, in a letter announcing his resignation, he wrote, "At this point in my career, I believe that change needs to happen more rapidly, and in that vein I believe that the State Board would be better served by a new leader who can bring different experiences and skills to the table."
"It has been frustrating not to give our agency and my employees the time and attention they need and deserve, and it has been frustrating trying to maintain the focus needed to excel while balancing far too numerous competing demands on my time," he wrote.
An announcement from the state board highlighted the progress made under his purview but expressed concern about Illinois' ever-widening achievement gap and vast numbers of students still failing to meet state standards.
"During the past several months, we have talked extensively with State Superintendent Glenn W. 'Max' McGee about our progress, which has been substantial; about the challenges of the future; and about what will be necessary to meet those challenges," the board stated. "We have concluded that new leadership will be required for success in the next, much more difficult stage of school reform."
The statement concludes, "Max is a marathon runner, but he and we understand that sometimes it is necessary to hand off the baton in order to accelerate the pace and master the next part of the course."
Back to the local level
The following year, McGee stepped back to a familiar arena: district superintendent for a public school district in Wilmette, Illinois.
For five years, until he was hired by IMSA, McGee headed Wilmette School District 39, which serves about 3,500 students with four elementary schools, one middle school and one junior high school (grades 7 and 8).
Ray Lechner, the current Wilmette superintendent, was the district's director of special education when McGee arrived.
Lechner said McGee's tenure in Wilmette, at first, was shaped by union issues he inherited from his predecessor. But he developed a strong relationship with the union president and "helped calmed that down," Lechner said.
Lechner said he also "put a lot of energy" into resolving issues over teacher compensation and benefits.
The result was a lasting legacy of strengthened relationships and a shifted culture in Wilmette, he said.
Lechner also praised McGee's support for special education programs. Lechner had been recruited to help the district withdraw from an obsolete special-education cooperative that had been created because, at that time, individual districts didn't feel equipped to handle the needs of special-education students.
"I was in the throes of getting all that organized," Lechner said of the time when McGee was hired. "He was not only supportive because he felt it was the right thing to do, he also empowered me to do so. He gave me the resources and tools to be able to be successful."
Alan Dolinko, president of the Wilmette Board of Education from 2001 to 2009, called McGee a "supremely qualified, highly knowledgeable, talented, professional leader."
"Max was very visible in our schools," Dolinko wrote in an email to the Weekly. "He was welcoming and accessible to parents and staff. I believe he had the respect and confidence of the board, staff and community at large during his time with us."
Palo Alto board President Mitchell said that the former president of the teacher's association in Wilmette described a "turnaround that Dr. McGee led once he arrived in their district."
"They'd had acrimonies, employee relations for some time before Dr. McGee arrived. That was important for us to hear, too, that he has a history of strong accomplishments but also of working well with a variety of individuals who have complex interests. ... (It isn't) always easy for superintendents to succeed in the way he has."
Lechner said McGee "groomed" him to become superintendent, making sure someone would be in place to take over his job once he left. McGee said it's his habit to develop leaders who can succeed him.
"I like to do new things and new challenges. That's just who I am," McGee told the Weekly. "But what I've always been proud of (is) the people I have left in almost every job have retired in that job."
The IMSA years
When he was state superintendent, McGee served as an "ex-officio," non-voting member on the IMSA board of trustees. He was put on a strategic-planning team to craft the school's strategic plan for 2007 to 2012, IMSA's Veal said.
"We were looking for people externally who understood Illinois education, politics, context, all of this kind of stuff. That's when I really had my first working experience (with McGee)."
Veal said the administration, at the time searching for a replacement for soon-to-retire founding president Stephanie Pace Marshall, wondered if the strategic-planning process might pique McGee's interest in the president position.
Eventually, it did.
Teachers, students and administrators alike call McGee's arrival at IMSA in 2007 a game changer.
He brought an energizing presence to the school — a stark contrast to Marshall, whom many said was almost a non-presence, unwilling to walk among the students or open her door in the same way he did.
"When Max came ... it was a big deal for IMSA because Stephanie was very cerebral — not that Max isn't — but she was very quiet, not that people didn't listen when she spoke, but Max is bigger than life," said Principal Branson Lawrence. "He's very gregarious. People like to be around Max. It was a different atmosphere when Max came as far as the president's office went."
On the day of the Palo Alto entourage's tour, McGee was repeatedly enthusiastically greeted in the school's hallways by nearly every person who walked by — students, teachers, IT staff, a sports coach and special program directors.
"Max knows how to relate to the kings and the paupers," Cain told the Weekly. "He speaks everybody's language."
The McGee legacy at IMSA, however, stretches beyond that relatable presence.
He's especially lauded for expanding the school's statewide reach. Though at first glance the boarding school seems to focus on the 650 high-achieving sophomore, junior and seniors who live and study there, IMSA has since its inception been committed to serving all of Illinois. As a state-funded public school, IMSA also has a responsibility to a much broader constituency than just the residential students and their parents.
The school runs a number of outreach programs; its two main initiatives are ALLIES, a service-learning program that helps local high school students teach and learn STEM concepts; and FUSION, an after-school STEM program that targets underserved elementary and middle school students with particular talent in mathematics and science. It also supports teachers' professional development, if they choose to participate. IMSA also opens its classrooms up during the summer with programs like green architecture, a science-oriented culinary school and medieval engineering.
The school served an estimated 10,000 students and 1,000 teachers statewide last year through such programs, McGee said.
McGee was instrumental in opening three new IMSA field offices, where the outreach programs take place, Veal said.
"He was always about being better — keep doing better, keep doing better. So we started some new things, like the field offices, to see if we could get more traction and serve better in communities (with) a permanent, physical presence," she said.
Expanding the school's reach and impact throughout the state, especially in high-needs, hard-to-serve areas, was McGee's "legacy No. 1" at IMSA, she said.
He also accomplished this through heavy fundraising and many private partnerships, Veal said.
And he had a lot of No. 2 legacies, she said, referring to his incredible rapport with students.
"Dr. McGee is one of those people — he steps into the room and the whole room lights up," graduating senior Lakhena Leang told the Weekly. "He's so wonderful. I can say so many positive things about Dr. McGee."
Other students describe him as more of a friend than an administrator, an adult on campus whom they felt comfortable approaching, talking to and working with, and as a positive, supportive presence in an often-stressful academic environment.
Graduating senior Sai Talluru worked with McGee on a program called United Nations for Youth that connects IMSA students with international students in places like Singapore and China to discuss educational policies.
"I really don't think that project would have been as successful or effective or as much as a great experience as it has been without the help of Dr. McGee," Talluru said. "He drew in all the context he had, helped us plan through the logistics and really took time out of his day to help us. With my experience, I found he was really willing to listen even though he was the president, and we were just two students."
Talluru said he would send them readings and talked to them about his experiences as a district and state superintendent.
Chemistry teacher Jeong Choe said his level of interaction with students was unusual for an administrator at his level.
"All of my students, they were always excited to see him in the hallway," she said. "You know how high school kids are — you see them in the hallway and they don't always want to say 'hi.' That wasn't the case with him."
Also unusual was his direct response to student criticism of the administration. In November 2011, IMSA's The Acronym published an article, "The Illinois Malnutrition and Sleep Deprivation Academy," slamming the administration for its handling of student stress and an imbalance between student health and rigorous academics at IMSA.
McGee sat down for a 30-minute video interview with the student who authored the article, addressing the piece's main points — academic dishonesty, student life restrictions, academic changes — and also answering questions students submitted anonymously online.
One student challenged the administration's recent implementation of measures such as required study hours and teacher meetings and remedial intersessions for at-risk students.
The mark of a good teacher, McGee responded, is that they don't let students fail.
Citing IMSA's rising attrition rate — up 7 percent in five years, from 11 to 18 percent, he said: "It's not that we're trying to disrespect or dishonor the student voice, but frankly, if the students' grades put them in difficulty, it's our responsibility to help them succeed.
"I mean it when I tell students and parents that I want to treat everyone here like he or she were my own child. And I'm not about to let them fail."
It was these students who took McGee's early departure the hardest, both the students and their teachers said. McGee announced early in 2013 that he was planning to leave on June 30 of that year, citing family and personal reasons.
"The day Dr. McGee announced he was going to leave was (like) the day Michael Jackson died, honestly," Leang said. "Everyone was so disheartened. ... They actually were pretty negative on the future of IMSA. People were saying, 'Without Dr. McGee, how is IMSA going to strive? How is anything going to happen?'"
McGee issued a statement at the time, reminiscent of the state-superintendent "passing of the baton" reference: "I believe IMSA is now on a trajectory that will propel it to even greater success in the next quarter century because of a highly capable leadership team, a talented and dedicated faculty and staff, a solid alumni base, our incredible students and their grateful parents, a supportive IMSA Fund board of directors, loyal donors, a growing network of educational partners, and a board of trustees that shares both a big vision and a commitment to action."
An entrepreneurial spirit
McGee left IMSA to serve as the head of school for PRISMS, which was backed by a Chinese foundation. He described the school as a unique opportunity to build an educational venture from the ground up, much like a startup.
"You don't get the opportunity to run a startup every day," McGee said. "You get to hire all your own people. You get complete control over the operation. When do you have a chance to make education what you really believe it ought to be?"
PRISMS' student body is equal numbers of Chinese and American students but no more than 40 total. McGee said the offer to head the school arose after research projects he coordinated between IMSA students and students and faculty in Beijing "got some attention in China."
"He's always had a little bit of an entrepreneurial itch and has always wanted the experience of the startup," Veal said, "and especially after being president here and meeting a lot of our kids and a lot of our alumni who are the entrepreneurial kinds. I think he got even more of an entrepreneurial itch and to live the life of a founder."
McGee's first day on the job in Princeton was in July; the school opened in September.
The very same day the Palo Alto education representatives visited IMSA, longtime IMSA English teacher Lee Eysturlid was at PRISMS, at McGee's request, to give a presentation.
"It's clear that the Chinese are funding it because the Chinese really want to have more of their students go to American universities," Eysturlid observed. "And it's hard to go (to) American universities without an American high school degree. If Chinese nationals can come get an American high school diploma and do well, they can go to Harvard and Yale and MIT."
He added that observations he made on a trip to Beijing with McGee indicate how the Princeton venture didn't turn out to be what McGee envisioned and why he's leaving after one year.
"They ask a ridiculous amount from him. They wanted him doing stuff all the time. And I also think they were nickel and diming him to death. ... I don't think they appreciated how hard he was working, and I don't think they gave him the freedom to act how he wanted," Eysturlid said. "I think they were really holding him back."
McGee won't go into that much detail but referenced challenges that came with building an international school from scratch.
The PRISMS board chair declined to be interviewed for this story, but McGee characterized the separation agreement as "mutually and amicably reached."
The issues facing McGee
McGee's contract with the Palo Alto school district has an end date of June 30, 2018, and contains stipulations about insurance, relocation expenses and salary increases.
McGee will be paid $295,000 for 224 days of service, but because he will only work 205 days in the first year, he will earn the lower $270,416, according to the contract.
He will receive health, dental, vision and "other fringe benefits" paid by the district. The district will also provide him with a monthly automobile allowance of $750 to purchase, use, maintain and insure a car for district business.
The district will reimburse McGee for expenses of up to $15,000 incurred as part of his move from New Jersey to Palo Alto. McGee will also be able to take advantage of a $1 million zero-interest loan to purchase a home within the district.
Under the proposed contract, his first day as Palo Alto superintendent will be Aug. 1, giving him time he has said he needs to "ensure that PRISMS is in good hands." An interim superintendent will be appointed for the month of July, between Skelly's last day and McGee's first.
McGee will have to hit the ground running in August, with a range of issues that will demand his attention. High on that list is the district's handling of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights investigations, with two cases still open and the board's recent resolution alleging that factual errors and faulty investigation practices by the federal agency have "caused significant damage to the district and our dedicated educators."
McGee said he was informed about the resolution but was not involved at all in drafting it. Though he spoke about the topic this week with Mitchell and Associate Superintendent Charles Young, he said he does not want to comment until he has a more complete understanding of the issue.
McGee said he has dealt with the Office for Civil Rights once, when an investigation related to hiring issues was opened during his first superintendency in Illinois. He said the administration "followed all the proper procedures" and didn't have any findings.
Also on McGee's desk will be the renewal of the city's lease of Cubberley Community Center, the sprawling 4000 Middlefield Road site that since 1989 has brought about $136 million in city payments to the school district and currently generates $7.1 million each year. The city and district have been at odds this year over the lease, which is set to expire in December, in particular over a "covenant not to develop" five school sites that were vacant at the time the lease was created. The City Council would like to eliminate the covenant, but the school district alleges that voters who in 1987 approved a utility user's tax to help fund education — in lieu of selling the five school sites for redevelopment — intended it to continue.
There is also the district's longtime plan to open a 13th elementary school, an expansion the board again put on hold this March, citing slowed enrollment growth. A majority of board members agreed with Skelly's recommendation at the time to let his replacement take a fresh look at the issue next year.
Palo Alto Unified is also in the throes of major construction projects throughout the district, funded by the $378 million "Strong Schools Bond" measure voters approved in 2008. Projects on the district's 17 campuses include a media arts building at Palo Alto High School and two-story classroom buildings at Paly, Gunn, JLS Middle School and Duveneck, Fairmeadow and Ohlone elementary schools. Other projects, including a new performing arts center at Paly, have yet to break ground.