Editor's note: A correction to this editorial was published on April 19, 2013, and explained that former Superintendent Mary Frances Callan submitted a resignation letter to the school district on Dec. 1, 2006 and retired in August, 2007. She was not fired.
Faced with its biggest governance crisis since former school superintendent Mary Frances Callan was fired in 2006, Palo Alto's five elected school board members are on the edge of a precipice.
For better or worse, their nature has been to function more as an advisory body to Superintendent Kevin Skelly than as a firm, decisive board that debates policy matters and then arrives at clearly articulated decisions.
They much prefer offering individual comments and advice at their meetings than arriving at a clear majority viewpoint, comfortable that Skelly will interpret their remarks appropriately.
In turn, Skelly prefers to operate as a facilitator rather than leader, reflecting his belief that each school site should run as autonomously as possible, allowing principals wide latitude in how they operate their schools. Under this philosophy, district-level administrators are seen as resources that can be drawn upon when desired or needed, not as leaders, guardians of institutional culture and values or as overseers that hold district employees accountable for following policies and standards.
The perils of this approach have never been more obvious than today, as the board attempts to find its way forward after a scathing report from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights on how a Palo Alto middle school handled the case of a repeatedly bullied special education student.
Superintendent Skelly's actions are under scrutiny because he not only signed a resolution agreement with the government without informing or consulting the board, but did not provide the board or public with a copy of the agreement and investigative findings. (He also similarly signed and withheld from the board a second agreement in an unrelated case.)
The only reason any of this came to light was because the family of the bullied child decided to release the documents to the Weekly out of its continued frustration with the district.
In separate interviews Wednesday totaling more than four hours, the Weekly met with all five board members to hear their views on this crisis. We also invited them to provide written statements to the community for publication, and President Dana Tom and Vice President Barbara Mitchell took us up on the offer and submitted the column on the facing page.
Several trustees asked the public for patience and to withhold judgment on their handling of the matter so they had time to adequately and carefully untangle a very complex problem.
All but Camille Townsend expressed their expectation and desire for more fact-finding to determine what happened and why.
The Mitchell-Tom statement in today's Weekly is disappointing on many levels, but especially because it fails to include their commitment, made when we talked with them, to getting to the bottom of why the problems happened and why district policies and laws were not followed.
Among the many challenges the board faces are the dual constraints of the Brown Act, which prevents a board majority from acting outside of a public meeting, and the confidentiality required when discussing any particular student case, forcing those discussions to take place in closed session.
We urge the board to do what any responsible board of directors, public or private, would do when faced with a major internal problem: Form a special board committee of two members and direct those members to retain the services of outside independent consultants (auditor, attorney or investigator) as necessary to gain a full understanding of what happened, why it happened, and who failed to perform their responsibilities. The consultant should report only to the board and should be given full access to employees and documents.
The committee should be tasked with returning to the full board with a report in 45 days or less, and should address:
• What led to district policies not being followed in this case and whether district policies have routinely not been followed in cases of bullying at other schools;
• How district administrators, ranging from site counselors all the way to Superintendent Skelly, performed in this case and other known bullying cases;
• How administrators at both the school sites and district office communicate with parents and guide them through complaint procedures;
• What district review and oversight exists of how school sites handle parent complaints;
• Whether parents of special education children in particular have difficulties dealing with district employees when they have complaints or concerns.
This controversy will become a festering wound if not handled aggressively by the board. The board should be given time to do its job, as several have asked, but that job begins with agreeing on a plan of action that is clearly adopted and communicated with the public.
In our conversations with board members, we believe there is a common commitment to doing this. Now it's up to at least one board member to put forth a proposal and to have it adopted, hopefully at next week's meeting. Doing so is the only way we know of to begin the essential process of regaining the public's confidence.