New Palo Alto schools' Superintendent Kevin Skelly and the Palo Alto Board of Education ought to spearhead a "time of healing" in the school district, consultants Geoff Ball and Associates advised the school board Tuesday night.
The recommendation -- and numerous others -- were outlined in a report commissioned to assess allegations from the Palo Alto Management Association (PAMA) that outgoing Superintendent Mary Frances Callan and her senior cabinet members treated employees unfairly.
Overall, the report found, the district lacks clarity on decision making, meeting management and purposes and is confused about the relative roles of the school board, superintendent and managers, consultants said.
Discontent with an amorphous system of governance created a tense and frustrated atmosphere in which "people too quickly jump to assumptions of malicious intent (rather than simple misunderstanding, lack of skills or even incompetence)," the report stated.
The report identified five areas needing improvement or action: relations among the board, managers and superintendent; the committee system by which information is gathered and discussed; key work processes; board policy leadership; and the strategic planning process.
The consultants warned that if the board were to forego making systematic changes the district would suffer the "loss of long-tenured talent to other districts." There would be "continued, if not escalated hostility between the Board and the managers, loss of energy and commitment in support of high performances, loss of trust and rapport, and damage to the Board's credibility."
Consultants came to these conclusions after conducting five months of interviews with 71 people including all school board members, the current superintendent, all senior cabinet members, and more than 50 members of the Palo Alto Management Association.
Many members of the group said they felt their expertise and experience was being disregarded or disrespected, the report said. The district lacks a systematic channel to flow "expertise and advice into policy making," the consultants found.
"They reported having been asked for opinion or input 'after the fact,' to confirm a decision that had already been made," consultants said.
Board members would do their own research into issues when they felt the quality of information given them by the staff was questionable, the report found.
District personnel also commented on the board's lack of coherence, as reflected in numerous split votes.
Board members attributed it to "differing views" on how they should work with the superintendent as well as with one another. Others attributed it to a lack of vision.
"A strong majority complained that the Board does not provide a consistent vision, use educational expert in the formation of policy, or educate itself sufficiently before making a decision," according to the report.
Consultants recommended the school board follow a strategic plan and avoid reactive decision making, consultants added.
"Sometimes you need to say, 'No,'" said Jerry Talley of Geoff Ball and Associates.
The board ought to "reaffirm local values," adopt a renewed focus on policies, and build a "code of conduct" for board members, Talley said.
"With the superintendent, the board needs to take the lead in developing and modeling PAUSD values," he said.
Consultants recommended the district could adopt more respectful language to challenge unacceptable behavior such as the following:
"Excuse me, but what you just did seems outside our agreements"; and "My understanding is that we were not going to do X anymore"; and "I can hear that you're angry, but we agreed to attack the issues and not each other."
The school district as a whole needs to create an environment in which professionals feel safe to address complex and conflicted issues rather than wasting effort on protecting themselves or maneuvering for a better position, consultants said.
There needs to be a culture of "mutual respect and belief in each other's best intentions even as disagreements emerge," the report stated.
When it comes to blame, the consultants advised district personnel not to point fingers.
"No one and everyone" is to blame, they said in the 31-page report. "What does matter is peoples' ability and willingness to listen to each other without a presumption of guilt or innocence, of being right or wrong, and with an interest in moving ahead together."
Looking forward, the vast majority of teachers and managers felt Palo Alto schools were a great place in which to work, Talley said. Most were also "optimistic" the district could change for the better.
"This was the time," Talley said he heard from interviewees about the board and the superintendent to make positive changes. "This is the year to do it."
Board members expressed support for the consultants' recommendations.
"This is the culmination of a period that has been very, very difficult and challenging for the board and the community," board member Gail Price said. "We are all committed to ensure we move forward in an optimistic and hopeful way."
"This is a time for healing," board member Mandy Lowell said. "We want managers to be respected as professionals."
"The report presents actionable work for us to do," board member Barb Mitchell said.
Kara Rosenberg, principal of the Palo Alto Adult School, thanked the board on behalf of PAMA for addressing the organizational process.
"Figuring out what the issues are is the easy part," board candidate Melissa Baten Caswell said. "The hard part is how to make the change."
The consultant is expected to meet with Skelly in early July to share their report with him. The board will begin working on changes with Skelly in the fall.
The consultant's full report can be found here.