As the Palo Alto Board of Education moves forward on efforts promised in its June resolution against the federal Office for Civil Rights, it continues to do so in spite of community members who vehemently oppose the resolution.
A parent who filed one of the district's two still-open Office for Civil Rights complaints, a sexual-harassment case at Gunn High School, spoke pointedly to the board Tuesday night about her disappointment in the resolution, calling it the "final slap in the face" in a distressing, flawed process.
The parent, who asked not to be identified, criticized school and district administrators, who "didn't really have a clue what to do during the situation."
But, she said, "The final slap in the face for me came when the board voted to pass this resolution instead of what I see as working collaboratively with them to fix our broken system."
"I don't see what you're expecting to gain," she told the board. "It's not too late to accept responsibility and correct mistakes."
She said her daughter has recovered from the assault, but is cynical that things will change at Gunn. She didn't want to return to Gunn this year -- and didn't think Palo Alto High would be any better.
"I think if the district puts a fraction of time and effort into my daughter's case as on this (the resolution), she might have felt cared for at school last year and she wouldn't be as cynical as she is today," the mother said.
She said she is still holding out hope that with a new superintendent, the district might still decide to change course.
Parent Andrea Wolf compelled the board: "Please cease and desist."
"The board's stance toward the Office for Civil Rights continues to be disheartening to me," Wolf said. "I'm here to reiterate the request I made to you last June: Please stop spending taxpayer money on instructing OCR on how to do their job."
Legal bills reviewed by the Palo Alto Weekly revealed that the district spent more than $200,000 in the first seven months of 2014 in legal fees related to its cases and conflicts with the Office for Civil Rights, including more than $50,000 for attorneys to research, develop and follow up on its resolution criticizing the agency. (Read: Legal costs soar as school board begins OCR lobbying)
School board candidate Ken Dauber, who has said he is committed to repealing the resolution if elected, also framed the argument Tuesday in terms of resources. He said the $50,000 spent on resolution preparation and follow-up alone could pay for 1,700 hours of tutoring at $30 per hour.
"Teachers are paying for construction paper and paperback books and crayons and pencils. Fifty thousand dollars would have gone a long way to meet those needs that teachers are paying for out of their pocket. I think we can all agree that there are needs in our district -- that students have and that teachers have -- that this money would have been far better put toward."
Board candidate Gina Dalma spoke about the community distrust the district's relationship with the Office for Civil Rights has engendered.
"We will not be able to build a relationship with the OCR, that as (Superintendent Max) McGee suggests 'is about working to benefit our young men and women and making sure policy and procedures are in compliance,' with a standing resolution that clearly states that the OCR is 'purposefully confrontational and disruptive and with no regards to instruction,' that it acts 'with the intention to promote confusion and concern,' that 'questions the integrity and honesty of the lawyers of the OCR.'
"These words connote confrontation, not collaboration. I urge the board to change our focus to one of real collaboration in benefit of all our kids," Dalma said.
The community's comments came after McGee characterized the resolution as an effort in the best interest of students and staff.
"We are not fighting the Office for Civil Rights. We are working collaboratively in the best interest of our students to assure that the school district has the appropriate procedures and practices in place to assure that IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) and 504 Plans are being met and that our school community is one that is welcoming, safe and supportive of every single one of our nearly 13,000 students and more than 1,600 staff," McGee said.
The board released with its Tuesday agenda a new lobbying document that summarizes the board's complaints against the Office for Civil Rights, which "have disrupted rather than facilitated" the two groups' "shared mission to safeguard the civil rights of all students," the document reads. It contains recommendations for how the federal agency should change its procedures.
"These are not confrontational (words)," he said. "These are recommendations, recommended reasonable suggestions to improve collaboration and communication."
Board President Barb Mitchell said the board spent a year in meetings and correspondence, written and verbal, with the Office for Civil Rights "without getting clarity on our questions of a procedural nature.
"It was unlike anything I've ever experienced in my 20 years with this district," she said.
She and other board members described the resolution as a means to help the federal agency and other districts learn from their experience.
Members also reiterated that part of their challenge has been navigating a balance between transparency and student confidentiality.
"As I reflect back on our journey here, I wish we could have brought the community along on the path we took to that resolution," said board member Dana Tom. "However, the biggest roadblocks have been our limitations on what we can say about student matters and what we can say when there's ongoing negotiation with the OCR. Also, we were attempting to work very directly with OCR to address our concerns without shining a public light on it.
"Our first goal was to try to work collaboratively with them, resolve the issues and move forward. When it became clear that we were not making any progress, we were left with very few choices," he said.