Palo Alto school-district superintendent Kevin Skelly has made a practice of communicating with school board members via email about district issues, sometimes polling them on their views and communicating his policy preferences, according to dozens of emails obtained by the Palo Alto Weekly through a Public Records Act request.
Board of Education members responded only to Skelly with their views, avoiding a clear violation of the Brown Act, the state open-meetings law, which prohibits a majority of board members from discussing or deliberating outside a public meeting.
Legal experts are divided, and courts have not yet ruled, however, on whether participating in a process that allows a chief administrator like Skelly to assess the policy views of the board through private email exchanges is a violation of the Act.
The emails were sent between Skelly and school board members in March and April and are only a portion of what is expected to eventually be released.
The Weekly made the request after Skelly's practice of sending school board members a "Confidential Weekly" email was revealed last month in response to a separate Public Records Act request.
The emails released this week were especially revealing on two topics: the debate over high school counseling and a proposal to expand the district's Spanish Immersion program by adding a strand at Barron Park Elementary School.
In both cases, Skelly provided the school board with information not available to the public and sought members' feedback or support.
The emails on high school counseling show Skelly's desire to head off or slow down implementing a teacher advisory (TA) program at Gunn High School similar to the one at Palo Alto High School following a March 27 public school board meeting. They also indicate board president Camille Townsend's deep frustration about the "constant hesitation to move toward TA."
In an April 26, 2012, email marked "Confidential" from Skelly to the five board members, Skelly describes a meeting that day with Gunn staff.
"I don't think there is much, if any, support for being a TA or adopting the TA model at Gunn," he wrote.
He described "real pain among the staff, a hit to morale, and a sense of defeat" over the possibility. He reiterated views against TA he had already expressed in a "Confidential Weekly" sent on April 20.
Skelly also included a draft of a memo to the Gunn community, ultimately sent out on May 5, that stated the teacher advisory system would not be "forced" on the Gunn community.
Townsend responded with a strongly worded email to Skelly a few hours later.
"The Gunn staff needs to be aware of what's happening at the school board level," Townsend wrote.
"Why the constant hesitation to move toward TA? I understood Noreen's (Likens, former Gunn principal) reluctance given her steeping in the more traditional counseling model. But now it feels like stubbornness coming through and not much more. Yes, folks need time to move in a direction ... but the conversation is starting to feel more obstructionist.
"It's really time to feel some movement on this," Townsend wrote.
"While patience may be a virtue and thoughtful planning, yes, that too, but this has gone far beyond that time frame ... even preceded you. I do support the TA system and it's not clear that the Paly TA teachers have even come over to talk to Gunn teachers. If it has happened, great. If not, it really needs to start happening."
Barbara Klausner supported Skelly's desire to communicate to Gunn staff that the board had taken no action directing Gunn to adopt the TA system, but she too emphasized the need for a quicker timeline for change.
"I think it would be accurate and very useful if you clarified that the board did not direct Gunn to adopt the Paly TA system. The strongest direction we issued was that the two schools talk with each other and that the Paly TA system be included (among many other topics) in the sharing between the two schools," Klausner wrote.
"I have absolutely no desire to foist a TA system on an unwilling staff. I would, however, like to continue to impress upon staff some sense of urgency about the inadequacies of the current system and to leverage this rare possible window of opportunity to shake things up a little more dramatically than we normally do. Counseling has been an annual district goal for the last three years. This should not be drawn out," Klausner wrote.
"On the other hand, I've had some interesting discussions and I think that it may be true that so many Gunn families have such low expectations of the guidance support offered at Gunn that they may actually place low stakes on improving a system that they have come to essentially ignore," she wrote, adding a plea that Skelly not communicate the latter to Gunn staff, whom she said are "hardworking (and) well-meaning."
The feedback from board members to Skelly did not lead to any significant changes in the message he and Gunn principal Katya Villalobos sent to the Gunn community a week later, prompting another email to Skelly from Townsend on May 7.
"They (Gunn) are being asked (by the board) to look at the TA system. As far as I know, none of the Paly TA's have been asked to come to a Gunn meeting to discuss how it operates and what they think of it. Don't you think that conversation is overdue?"
No response to Townsend from Skelly was included in the emails released this week.
On the idea of expanding the district's Spanish Immersion program, Skelly sent board members an email March 6, a week after a public study session on the subject, proposing that the staff start exploring opening a second strand of the program at Barron Park as early as this coming school year. He outlined proposed steps, including discussions with the Barron Park community.
"I would love to hear your thoughts," Skelly wrote. "Perhaps you can call or sit down with me in the next few days."
Skelly received email replies from every board member, including a long analysis from Barbara Klausner. Each of them expressed at least some enthusiasm for the idea, although Klausner cautioned Skelly that implementing something as early as this fall raised policy concerns for her.
"Thus, so long as your exploration stays relatively in-house until we as a leadership team have an opportunity to vet it as part of a long-term vision, then I have no objection to your desire to 'EXPLORE' the possibilities," Klauser replied.
"Once, however, it goes beyond current stakeholders (e.g., district staff, BP current community) and creates expectations and a sense of anticipation from a group like SI lottery losers, then I am extremely uncomfortable with the idea of exploration," she wrote.
Skelly replied to Klausner and shared with her that other board members had "varying degrees of enthusiasm" and that her comments were "at a far end of the board comments I have received but they are extremely helpful as the process ones, in particular, will get us in trouble. See weekly (memo) for next steps."
Last month, the Palo Alto Weekly sent a letter to the school board asserting that the school board may have violated the Brown Act through the practice of communicating privately with Skelly on issues of district policy, essentially engaging in deliberation through Skelly without the public having an opportunity to monitor and observe.
The board held a study session on the Brown Act May 31, during which each board member denied violating the Brown Act, stated their practices are common in other school districts and emphasized their commitment to transparency.
In an ironic twist, board members have been advised by their attorney not to read the emails released by the district so they do not risk violating the Brown Act by becoming aware of each other's opinions.
Read all the emails released so far between the superintendent and school board online at http://pausd.org/community/PublicRecordsRequest/