Palo Alto principals, vice-principals may form union
Members of mid-level management team attack superintendent and senior cabinet
A breakdown in trust with top administrators in the Palo Alto Unified School District is leading a group of principals and assistant principals to consider forming an association or affiliating with a union.
A group representing the management team of about 50 mid-level administrators earlier this month delivered a one-page document to Superintendent Mary Frances Callan with harsh criticisms of her and other top administrators, citing "a lack of trust and productive communication between the ... Management Team and the Superintendent and her Senior Cabinet."
The document, obtained by the Weekly, declares that the management team plans to either form an independent association or affiliate with a union.
But the public disclosure of the document immediately triggered a debate about how many members of the Management Team group are actually represented.
The document was delivered to Callan at a Sept. 6 meeting as she met with a group of eight school employees delegated to represent the larger management group.
The letter, kept under wraps by the district in spite of being circulated to school board members soon after it was received, has been discussed in closed session by the school board.
"In 15 years, there's nothing more important that I've seen happen in our district," board member Barb Mitchell said. "It's very serious. It's very fragile. It's very urgent. The school board will take it seriously."
But board President Mandy Lowell said she is getting "mixed messages" about how many in the management group actually subscribe to the language in the document, while acknowledging there have been some areas of dissatisfaction.
The team consists of about 48 principals, assistant principals and program coordinators — district employees who are not represented by the Palo Alto Educators Association (PAEA), the teachers' union bargaining unit affiliated with the California Teachers Association.
The senior cabinet consists of Callan, Associate Superintendent Marilyn Cook, Business Manager Jerry Matranga and Scott Bowers, human-relations director.
Callan told the Weekly Thursday she was surprised and "stung" by the wording of the document, but understood that members of the group wanted more time to work on the language. One member said no one else at the meeting had read it.
After an introductory paragraph that bluntly defined "lack of trust" as a core issue, the document states:
"Although there have been meetings ... the dialogue has not led to consistent, clear, and fair practices. Rather than explore topics of interest in a timely and thoughtful manner, the Superintendent and her Cabinet have returned a punch list of items that do not address the core issues of ... trust, communication, consistency of practice and preferential treatment."
The document puts "Trust" as the top of three priorities, with "Professional Environment and Practices" second and "Salary and Benefits" third and includes examples of concerns within each category.
It concludes that due to "the lack of an in-depth and timely dialogue," the management team "is investigating the need to organize a formal association or union."
A "timeline" referenced in the document was not included with the copy of the letter obtained by the Weekly, but sources within the district indicate that talks began as early as last May with Bowers, and concerns began to churn as early as last November.
In late May or early June, Callan met with the group of eight to discuss the concerns — but only after stated their intention to meet with school-board members because they felt talks with Bowers weren't productive, according to sources.
The Sept. 6 meeting was the second with Callan. The board received copies of the letter on Friday, Sept. 8, after board members requested copies.
The school board has met twice on the matter in a closed-session discussion: Sept. 12 and last Monday night, reportedly to schedule a time for further discussion.
"The board desperately wants to dialogue about and address management-team needs," Lowell said. "We highly value our management-team members and want to have good communication about their needs."
There is an apparent discrepancy regarding how many principals and assistant principals agree with the letter's statements.
Members of the management team met last Monday and, according to sources, overwhelmingly agreed to support the basic sentiments in the document, with additional support coming later via e-mails and personal contacts. Reports indicate that between 38 and 41 of the 48-member management team reaffirmed support for the document in its original form.
One principal, who said he would support an independent association of some sort, said he would view a union affiliation as a "radical step." He also said he views the document as a work in progress.
Another principal said he was unaware of any vote or opinion sampling that would support a conclusion that 75 to 80 percent of the management-team members supported its content.
Some members are downplaying the document, saying their concerns have more to do with compensation issues than organizing a union. Others say the letter goes well beyond "dollars and cents" and is a major sign that something is seriously wrong internally at the district.
Callan said she is concerned the document will not just reflect poorly on the district but might seriously hamper the ability to move forward on many of the issues — from attendance areas to curriculum issues — the district faces.
"I am concerned for the overall health of the organization," she said. But she said clearly there are significant issues that need to be discussed more deeply.
"We have some serious talking to do," she said.
One board member acknowledged "interpersonal problems" between certain mid-level administrators and the superintendent, and that some of the recent shifts in site-level administration were affected by such relationships.
In recent years, the district has undergone major changes in administration, in some cases playing musical chairs with the positions.