While not a surprise, Superintendent Kevin Skelly's announcement this week that he would leave the district at the end of the school year is a great relief.
Over the last two years, it had become increasingly clear that Skelly's departure was more a question of when, not if. His lack of candor and transparency over the federal civil-rights investigation and settlement agreement relating to bullying at Terman Middle School, coupled with the school board's continued refusal to publicly discuss the problems and to instead plot strategies for resisting the authority of the Department of Education, fueled further controversy and ineffectiveness.
Had the board done its job and not isolated itself by retreating behind the protection of closed doors, perhaps things would have turned out differently.
The timing of Skelly's announcement is a tremendous gift to the community, however, and must not be squandered. It is common, of course, for turnover of school district leaders to occur over the summer. But it is unusual to have this much of a head start, and the school board needs to move immediately to take full advantage of it.
First, it is essential that an independent assessment be made of the district's administrative structure, staffing responsibilities and needs. For those who have had a glimpse of the culture and how things work at 25 Churchill, it is clearly an organization in need of more and better professional management. But it is also not well-structured or adequately staffed to competently accomplish the amount of work the community expects. As a result, too often proposals or reports come to the board without enough thought, preparation or groundwork.
An outside organizational consultant should interview present and former district staff, review the division of responsibilities and make recommendations on how to align staff with needs and expectations. There is no better time to do this than when the conclusions can inform the hiring of a new leader and provide a road map for improvement.
This work can build on the study done seven years ago when a consultant analyzed the mess created by Skelly's predecessor, Mary Frances Callan. Callan's leadership style was nearly the opposite of Skelly's, and she infuriated principals and others with her arrogance and heavy-handedness, leading to an open revolt and her eventual resignation.
The answer was Skelly, a former math teacher, principal at Saratoga High School and associate superintendent in Poway, a district more than twice the size of Palo Alto.
Skelly was appealing for all the reasons that Callan was not. He is a teacher at heart, and loves getting out into the schools, supporting teachers, interacting with kids and celebrating what a great school district we have.
He has successfully overseen a huge school construction program and led the district through substantial budget cuts made necessary by revenue declines due to the Great Recession, while minimizing the impacts on kids and the classroom.
He brought the contrasting experience of having been the principal at a high-achieving school in Saratoga and the administrator at a very diverse district in Poway. Even his harshest critics found him a likeable person without a shred of arrogance.
But he notably lacked any previous background as a superintendent and the attendant experience in leading a complex organization with diverse and demanding stakeholders. And like the board, he was never comfortable with transparency, especially when dealing with controversial issues when it was needed most.
In addition to instituting an internal organizational review, the school board needs to reflect on its own performance, and how to now create a successful search process. This board's defensive, secretive and circle-the-wagons mentality and failure to address the deficiencies of its management team has led to serious doubts about its abilities and has broken the trust of the community. And now this group must hire the next superintendent.
We hope the board will establish a highly diverse and inclusive committee of community members to participate in the selection of the next superintendent. This group should consist of the typical representatives of district principals, teachers and parents, but should especially include those critics who have expressed concerns over governance issues. And given the events and revelations of the last two years, it should most certainly include representation of special education and minority parents.
Hard as it may be, now is the time for the board to meet this challenge head on, let go of its defensiveness and unite the community through real inclusion.