Four hopefuls in this fall's Palo Alto school board race have split over a resolution -- to be considered by the Board of Education tonight -- challenging the practices of a federal civil-rights agency that has launched multiple investigations of the Palo Alto Unified School District.
Two of the likely candidates, Gina Dalma and Ken Dauber, said they would urge the board to reject the resolution, drafted by board President Barb Mitchell, Vice President Melissa Baten Caswell and Superintendent Kevin Skelly, that seeks to highlight "significant concerns" regarding investigative practices of the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.
Two others, Catherine Crystal Foster and Terry Godfrey, said they do not have enough information to weigh in on the topic.
The resolution, up for a final board vote tonight, states that the Office for Civil Rights has refused to correct alleged errors in its investigation processes, which board leaders called "purposely confrontational and disruptive." It resolves to seek redress of the alleged errors through meetings with elected officials and other organizations. All five board members indicated support for the proposed resolution when they discussed it during their last meeting June 3.
Dauber, a Google software engineer, has urged friends and supporters to ask the board to reject the resolution.
The Office for Civil Rights' 2012 findings against the district in a middle school bullying case presented "an opportunity to improve how our district handles harassment and discrimination against young, female, disabled and minority students," Dauber said.
"Behind each complaint are parents and students who sought help from district staff and, for whatever reason, felt that they ultimately had to seek aid from the federal government -- whether the complaint was ultimately upheld or not.
"We should be inquiring about what lies behind those experiences and how we can fix them rather than criticizing OCR or seeking to revisit closed cases."
Dauber urges the board to refrain from committing to a course against the federal agency until incoming superintendent Max McGee starts on Aug. 1 and has a chance to familiarize himself with the situation.
He also questioned the wisdom of the district allowing itself to be "enlisted as an example in pushing back against civil-rights enforcement nationally, which I think is a very real possibility given our national prominence."
Dalma, who is traveling in Asia, also urged the board to reject the resolution tonight.
"The past two years of our district's involvement with the Office for Civil Rights have provided an opportunity for self-reflection, community conversations, renewal and growth," Dalma said in a statement to be read to the board tonight by her friend Lisa Antillon.
"The proposed resolution closes the door to this constructive dialogue and instead places the district on a defensive stance against OCR, deflecting time, energy and resources from our students. All this to fight an organization dedicated to social justice."
Dalma, who works as a senior program officer in education for the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, said it is in the school district's interest "to welcome OCR's oversight, not fight it."
Foster, former executive director of the Peninsula College Fund and now an education-policy consultant, said she had read the board's resolution and supporting materials but had "no independent way to verify what did and did not occur, and so much of what transpired isn't public.
"Commenting on it would, invariably, involve a great deal of speculation on my part, which I believe is inappropriate and also potentially unfair to all those involved," Foster said in an email.
As for waiting for McGee's arrival, Foster said, "This resolution ... is a board-level issue, not a superintendent issue. I am not going to second-guess their decision without all the facts."
Godfrey similarly said she does not have enough information about the background of the board resolution to comment.
"I know in my corporate life as a senior manager at Intel I was involved in my share of private conversations relating to personnel and/or legal matters to which others weren't privy. Some of those conversations were very difficult and, at times, the speculation surrounding was rampant and never productive," Godfrey said in an email.
"I haven't spoken to any of the board members or Dr. Skelly about this. Much of the decision-making that got them to this point seems to have happened in closed session. I really can't comment and, like the rest of the community, will be watching the board meeting to see how this goes," added Godfrey, who has chaired the Palo Alto PTA Council as well as the board of Palo Alto Partners in Education.
Over the past two years the OCR has conducted at least seven investigations in the Palo Alto school district. Two of those remain open. Four have recently been dropped for insufficient evidence. In an open case involving Terman Middle School, conditions of a voluntary "resolution agreement" signed by the district and the federal agency are expected to be completed in the next school year.
Dalma, Dauber, Foster and Godfrey all have said they plan to run for school board in the Nov. 4 election, though none has officially declared. Incumbents Barb Mitchell and Dana Tom have indicated they will not seek re-election to the five-member board.