With the resignation three weeks ago of assistant superintendent Michael Milliken, Palo Alto school superintendent Kevin Skelly was handed an unexpected gift.
Milliken's departure offered Skelly his first opportunity to make a key staffing decision since the maelstrom of controversy stemming from a finding by the federal Office for Civil Rights that Terman Middle School administrators failed to effectively investigate or stop the bullying of a disabled student. That finding was so embarrassing that it caused Skelly to keep it secret from the board and public last December.
Instead of using the Milliken opening to find a person who might signal to the community an acknowledgment of mistakes made and improvements needed, his quick appointment of Terman principal Katherine Baker sadly sends just the opposite message.
It is a defiant move that either says there is no accountability for serious mistakes or that Skelly believes the district was the victim of an unfair civil-rights investigation that has improperly impugned the management practices of him and his lieutenants. Either way, and perhaps by design, it also sends the message to outside authorities like the Department of Education that in Palo Alto, we do as we please and the opinions of such agencies about the way we run our district don't matter to us.
And most regrettably, it sends the message to the parents of all students who have suffered through traumatic bullying or harassment in school that their concerns are valued so little that the promotion of the person most responsible for mishandling the Terman case is more important.
Katherine Baker may indeed be the most outstanding and qualified person for the job of director of secondary education of our school district. While she has only been at the district for three years, she has been a conscientious and responsive principal. We have no reason to think she isn't capable of performing Milliken's job.
But promoting her at this time, with wounds from the civil-rights investigation not yet even beginning to heal, shows immense insensitivity and poor judgment.
Accountability has long been a problem for Palo Alto. Mistakes are so quickly praised as being part of the Silicon Valley innovation culture that the concept of consequences has been lost. "Learning to fail" is indeed an important lesson, especially for young people.
But part of the lesson needs to be that actions have consequences. Accountability needs to find its way back into the play book of our public institutions, and especially at the school district.
A shift on vehicle-dwelling
Tuesday's vote of a City Council committee recommending adoption of an ordinance to ban vehicle habitation was only surprising because it was unanimous.
Contrary to her earlier votes and statements on the issue, Council member Gail Price joined colleagues Liz Kniss and Larry Klein in supporting a new law after going through what she described as a "difficult shift" in her thinking.
She is not alone in struggling to balance her compassion and concern for the homeless with an increasingly problematic situation at the Cubberley Community Center and at other locations throughout the city.
Larry Klein, who previously minimized the problem, has now also concluded that Palo Alto cannot remain the sole community to permit dwelling in vehicles because it is becoming a magnet for such people.
There now appears little doubt that when the ordinance comes before the full City Council in September it will be adopted.
Price's heartfelt comments resonate. She explained that in examining how current city policy was working, she came to the conclusion that we don't help the homeless by allowing them a place to live in their car when what they really need is "intensive help and referral to support services."
All three council members argued that the problem of homelessness is much bigger than Palo Alto and that the city is already providing extensive services to the homeless.
As written, the proposed ordinance would have a very long implementation period, too long in our opinion. It provides for a 60-day outreach period to educate vehicle dwellers about the new law and on services available to help them, and then a 30-day "warning" period during which no enforcement would take place. Actual enforcement would be on a complaint basis.
The ordinance will finally provide a needed tool to address problem cases, where vehicle dwellers are impacting neighborhoods or, in the case of Cubberley, have established what city staff has described as a de facto homeless camp.
Addressing this issue is not easy for anyone involved but it is long past time to take action. We especially commend Gail Price for the reversal in her position. She could easily have opted to remain opposed and simply be out-voted by her colleagues. Instead, she stepped up and provided leadership.