Former principal says his departure mirrors current controversy
Joe Di Salvo tells Weekly why he left JLS Middle School under a cloud of mystery
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.