Stung by what they view as unfair allegations that they violated California's open-meeting law, Palo Alto school board members Thursday said they are vigilant in observing the law and do not believe any violation occurred.
The Board of Education members spoke in a special meeting they called in response to a May 14 letter from Palo Alto Weekly Publisher Bill Johnson stating that an April 20 confidential memo from Superintendent Kevin Skelly to board members may have led to a violation of the law, known as the Brown Act.
"I take the Brown Act very seriously ... so it's very troubling to me to think I or any of my colleagues would knowingly do anything in secret in a way not fully in compliance with the law," board member Melissa Baten Caswell said.
In a prepared statement, board member Barb Mitchell said "unfounded accusations" by a "premier local news publication" have damaged the public trust, and she called for a retraction by the Weekly.
"The six of us have received extensive training on California public-record laws ... and have in place policies and practices that far exceed Brown Act standards for conduct," Mitchell said, referring to Skelly and the five board members.
The board did not act on a recommendation from Skelly that future weekly memos from him and other administrators be posted on the district's website instead of sent only to the board.
Members said they wanted more time to consider ramifications of such a policy and also said hasty action could be misinterpreted as an acknowledgement that the memos are improper.
But Skelly said he would make his "Confidential Weekly" memos available to anyone who requests them, pending formulation of a policy.
The board will discuss a framework for developing possible policy changes at its annual retreat, scheduled for June 25 and 26, board President Camille Townsend said.
Two attorneys, one representing the school board and the other retained by the Palo Alto Weekly, presented conflicting interpretations of the Brown Act's restrictions on board members.
School board counsel Louis T. Lozano said weekly memos like Skelly's are common practice among California school-district superintendents. The memos typically are not published but are a matter of public record, available to anyone upon request, he said.
"The typical superintendent communicates quite frequently what they're doing and their thinking on various subjects," Lozano said.
"In my opinion ... there's nothing in the Brown Act that prevents a communication from a superintendent to test ideas. Every idea isn't going to see the light of day, but you want some opportunity to say, 'Are we heading in the right direction?'"
Lozano said such communication is legal as long as staff members do not communicate to board members what their board colleagues are thinking on a pending policy issue.
San Francisco media lawyer Karl Olson, retained by the Weekly, disputed Lozano's interpretation.
Memos or e-mails sent to a school board by an administrator are "always going to create potential Brown Act concerns" because they create the possibility of policy-making through serial communication, Olson said.
He cited a section of the law specifically limiting staff communication to board members outside of meetings to "(answering) questions or (providing) information regarding a matter that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the local agency."
Johnson's May 14 letter to the board said Skelly's confidential April 20 memo outlining his thoughts and plans on high school counseling policies and his invitation to further discuss the "sensitive" issue with him create the appearance of behind-the-scenes deliberation that the Brown Act prohibits.
Thursday's special meeting drew a crowd of up to three-dozen parents -- including former school board member John Tuomy -- several of whom spoke in support of the district and its practices.
"I'm entirely convinced there is no evidence of a violation here," said Jonathan Foster, a lawyer and parent of two children in the district, who also chairs the city's Utilities Advisory Commission.
"There's an issue of a memo Skelly sent that seems from what I've heard to go in a different direction on the Gunn guidance issue from the board. It's a legitimate issue if the superintendent is not doing what the board wants -- I don't know -- but that's not a Brown Act violation."
Lozano, the district's attorney, agreed, saying "there may be a question as to whether the superintendent followed the board's direction," but that that is not a Brown Act violation.
Parent Susan Bailey identified herself as "part of a Palo Alto parent community that is very grateful to the superintendent and board." Bailey also is president of the Palo Alto High School PTA.
"When external input starts to prohibit staff and board to pursue efficiently and effectively positive change, we get concerned," Bailey said in a veiled reference to the parent-led group, We Can Do Better Palo Alto, which has tenaciously lobbied the board to implement a Paly-style guidance-counseling system at Gunn High School.
We Can Do Better co-founders Ken and Michele Dauber have made numerous requests for school documents under the Public Records Act, one of which last month uncovered the existence of Skelly's weekly confidential memos.
The Daubers in the past have called on the board to hire "new leadership," saying Skelly had failed to address the problem of academic stress in Palo Alto.
"We need to allow the staff and board to do advanced, preliminary thinking," Bailey told the board.
"While we want them to comply with the Brown Act, I strongly disagree with condemning them based on supposition and speculation.
"Change is hard, and can best take place in a positive environment, not in one of attack, ridicule and belittlement," Bailey said.
Ken and Michele Dauber also spoke. Michele Dauber, a professor at Stanford Law School, said case law suggests Skelly's invitation to board members to further discuss with him a "sensitive" matter "exceeds any reasonable threshold or definition of 'information or answering questions.'"
A suggestion by board member Dana Tom that the board consider a policy of making public all e-mails between staff and trustees was deferred to future meetings, although members acknowledged that such e-mails are public records and would be released upon request by a member of the public.