For more than two years, the Palo Alto school board has been very intentional in keeping everything about its dealings with the federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR) a secret.
Back in early 2012, we now know, the board and its lawyers were so confident they chose to fight OCR over the district's handling of a severe bullying case rather than reach an agreement prior to the conclusion of the investigation, a procedural option that would have spared the district harmful and embarrassing findings of fact.
That decision turned out to be a costly and fateful one, financially and otherwise. It led to huge legal expenses and findings that the district had violated the student's civil rights. All of these consequences were avoidable had the district acknowledged mistakes and worked cooperatively with OCR instead of resisting.
None of this would have ever been known to the public were it not for the student's family releasing the documents, because Superintendent Kevin Skelly chose not to tell the board or public about the agreement or the findings.
When the story broke in February 2013, a stunned board made promises of future public briefings and asked the public for patience while it gathered needed information. No such briefings were ever held. Nor did the board heed advice to initiate a neutral and independent inquiry, a move that could have informed the board and public about both the district's and OCR's actions and behavior.
Instead, the board retreated into numerous closed-session discussions and meetings with lawyers where strategies for challenging OCR's legal authority were developed, and a decision was made to try and re-open the case and obtain investigators' notes, documents and other evidence on which OCR relied in reaching its conclusions.
Not a word about this, or the costs involved, was shared with the public, except a mistakenly released email last June when board Vice President Barb Mitchell expressed her view that the OCR was "strong arming policy 'agreements' at the school district" and asked questions about what legal means the district might have to counter it.
Throughout the last 18 months, the district has refused to release any of its correspondence with OCR regarding their disagreements and concerns. Selective letters finally made public last week show the district waited months to raise objections to the OCR's findings in the initial case.
In what little they have said, in public and private, board members and Superintendent Kevin Skelly have instead questioned the motives and veracity of complainants, other individuals in the community, the media and now OCR.
They allege the Office for Civil Rights has been "purposefully confrontational and disruptive," causing damage to the district's reputation and morale and leading to distortion or misinterpretation of the facts by the public and media.
There is great irony in the district's complaints about OCR, because the district's own practices suffer from the very same problems.
The district protests delays in responses to public-records requests while its own responses to similar requests have extended for months, well past legal timelines. It complains of the lack of email responses from OCR while one of the most common complaints from families is the district's failure to respond to emails. It objects to gaps or ambiguities in OCR processes while the district has not had legally compliant policies and clear procedures for parents and administrators until being forced to develop them by OCR.
We don't question the sincerity of school board members in raising their concerns about OCR, but their energy and the district's financial resources are being squandered by this tactic. And it will simply prove to be ineffective, as it has been for more than a year. Our focus should be on improving our schools and constructively moving forward, not trying to reform a federal law-enforcement agency.
The hard costs of the district's actions are staggering. In 2013, more than $300,000 was paid to the law firm representing the district in special education and OCR matters, three times what was spent in 2012, which itself was a record-breaking year. The district now estimates that 2014 costs may very well top 2013.
It is especially hard to fathom why, on the eve of welcoming a highly accomplished and eager new superintendent, the board would choose to launch a public attack on actions by OCR that took place over a year ago in a case that is now essentially closed. (Glenn "Max" McGee told us that he was informed, but not consulted, on Monday night about the board's intended action.)
Welcome to Palo Alto, Dr. McGee. To say you have a little clean-up to do is an understatement, but it's safe to say that right now 100 percent of the community is rooting for you. We desperately need some fresh eyes and new leadership in this great school district.