Editorial: The meaning of 'fight'

As Palo Alto school board runs up legal bills, supe takes a different tack

It took newly-arrived Palo Alto school Superintendent Max McGee about six weeks to figure out what the school board still hasn't: The way to head off costly legal entanglements when problems arise is to communicate quickly, acknowledge mistakes, make corrections, and stay focused on the needs of every student.

That's how McGee opted this month to solve the newest complaint of a frustrated Palo Alto parent who turned to the federal Office for Civil Rights for help after believing district staff had not handled their child's disability accommodations properly.

McGee didn't bring in the lawyers. He didn't try to question the appropriateness or authority of OCR's involvement, nor the motivations of the family. He didn't cost the district a dime.

Instead, he quickly pulled together a chronology of what had happened, including the errors made by the district in handling the student's 504 plan accommodation, and outlined what the district had already done to both fix the problem for this particular student and to change procedures so it wouldn't happen again. He provided all this to the OCR, which he says appears to have resolved the matter.

McGee also proved that a complaint can be publicly disclosed and discussed while at the same time fully protecting the identity and privacy of the student. The school board and its attorneys have consistently used student privacy rights as the reason for refusing to discuss complaints or the district's actions in dealing with complaints.

Board members and district lawyers, please take note of how problems can be handled in a different way from the path you have chosen.

For more than three years, you have taken exactly the opposite approach. You have declined early opportunities to resolve problems. You have questioned the motivations and veracity of families bringing complaints. You have publicly accused one complainant of criminal conduct without offering a single piece of evidence, alleging that an email exchange between the family and the district had been altered because your lawyers are certain they saw a document at an OCR interview with the school principal that didn't match their copy. This in a case long ago closed in the district's favor.

You have selectively released correspondence with OCR while refusing to release others. You have criticized those, including parents, the media and especially the Weekly, who have resorted to making formal requests under the Public Records Act as the only way to penetrate the wall of secrecy you have constructed around your actions and deliberations.

But the worst thing you have done is spent huge amounts of taxpayer money for lawyers to pursue these tactics.

Hundreds of hours of attorney time costing hundreds of thousands of dollars have been devoted over the last two years to legal research, legal memos and communications with OCR attorneys and the board aimed at challenging or resisting OCR's authority and developing strategies for limiting their investigations. More than a hundred hours of attorney time was charged to the district just to prep and then sit with school staff being interviewed by OCR in connection with the sexual harassment issues at the two high schools. What in the world did attorneys fear teachers might say if they weren't present?

And through July, just under $50,000 was spent for lawyers to prepare and advise board president Barb Mitchell and vice president Melissa Baten Caswell on the resolution passed in June critical of OCR practices, to prepare materials for lobbying legislators and to confer with the National School Board Association, an organization who top legislative priority is to diminish the federal Department of Education.

Superintendent McGee Tuesday night emphatically proclaimed that the district is not "fighting" the federal government but merely helping it and other school districts to avoid the problems we've experienced with OCR investigations.

While McGee's actions have been right, his statement is wrong. He need only review the documents, including the legal bills, to see that we have been in a fight with OCR for a long time.

A carefully polished memo outlining grievances and recommended changes in OCR practices does not erase almost two years of resisting OCR, nor Mitchell's statements that OCR was "purposely confrontational and disruptive," that its work "promotes confusion" and her assertion that OCR was "strong arming policy agreements."

"Resolve by struggle" is the dictionary definition of "fight." Sadly, that describes perfectly the folly of this board's money-wasting and divisive strategy.

Related story: Legal costs soar as school board begins OCR lobbying

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


4 people like this
Posted by Peggy Duncan
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 26, 2014 at 7:02 am

Peggy Duncan is a registered user.

Excellent editorial. I was also dismayed to see that Max seems to be in agreement with the Mitchell plan for resisting the federal government. I am most alarmed by what you refer to in this editorial as "questioning the motivations and veracity of families bringing complaints."

I am very very concerned that Max McGee is going to release some amount of money, calculated post hoc and inflated, of the "cost" of compliance with OCR requirements.

I believe that this is intended to, and will, provoke retaliation against victims who filed complaints.

For example, the mother who spoke so heartbreakingly at the meeting on Tuesday. Should she and her daughter, who have already suffered so much, now have to be presented publicly with a "bill" from Barbara Mitchell, for the supposed money that the district had to expend due to her complaint? That is public shaming and intended to silence and stigmatize victims.

The very fact that Max McGee would even consider producing a "bill" like that, using Cathy Mak's staff time to compile it out of thin air so that Mitchell, Hurley, and Chad Graf and his PR team can use it for spin -- can make inflamed speeches, send inflamed letters to Anna Eshoo and other public officials, can use it in the NSBA's agenda against President Obama -- that is just piling one misuse of staff time on another. Cathy Mak should be working on her job, not on this political campaign. Tabitha Hurley should be terminated as not necessary. FFF should be let go. The district should have a general counsel, whose job it is to prevent these kinds of things from happening in the first place, not to gin them up.

If a bill is created, it will be used as an instrument of further retaliation on victims like the mother who filed the Gunn complaint, the family of the Terman victim who is poor and Latino and also spoke at the meeting, and the other complainants from Duveneck, Jordan, and other schools. It is wrong to allow Mitchell to continue to hijack our district for her political ends. Please, Dr. McGee do not create some "bill" that can be attributed to the victims. They were exercising their rights.

I do not think Dr. McGee understands Palo Alto and I don't think he knows how bad it will be for the victims and complainants if he allows this happen.

6 people like this
Posted by Alphonso
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Sep 26, 2014 at 7:43 am

Alphonso is a registered user.

While I agree with the world being proposed in this editorial, I wonder why The Weekly does not walk the talk. Whenever I read stories about Education in the PA Weekly I feel there is a wall of secrecy - there is too much bias in the reporting and we only get information consistent with a PA Weekly agenda. I wrote a nice letter to the Mercury News yesterday and asked them to assign a reporter to PA Education so we can read a balanced view of what is happening in local schools. All of the kids (students) in PA are victims if the OCR process was flawed.

5 people like this
Posted by Andrea Wolf
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 26, 2014 at 11:29 am

Andrea Wolf is a registered user.

To the Editorial Board of The Weekly,
Thank you very much for this editorial. It fully articulates the positive steps that Superintendent McGee has started to take in this district around the OCR issues. The money that the district has spent in legal fees and staff time on their June Resolution is appalling. They should be ashamed that they have chosen to spend our taxpayer money in this way rather than in providing direct services to students.

I would respect them more if they just said, "yes, we have chosen to fight the OCR because we do not agree with their methods." I would not agree with their actions or their expenditures, but at least they would be modeling honesty for our children. Instead, they have consistently chosen the path of hiding behind the concept of confidentiality and displaying extreme duplicitousness in their word choices. Perhaps the district really believes it is trying to help the OCR. If so they should speak the truth and say they are attempting to help by fighting/disagreeing/quarreling/arguing, etc...

Finally, I am incredibly grateful to live in one of those rare communities that still has a newspaper that is locally owned and operated. This is increasingly rare throughout the United States. While I do not always agree with every editorial as much as I do with this one, I am always thankful that we have a newspaper -even a weekly- whose sole purpose is to report on this community.

2 people like this
Posted by Angie Baker
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 26, 2014 at 1:52 pm

Angie Baker is a registered user.

A great editorial. The school board is completely disconnected from the community on this issue. Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting with the federal government is crazy and hurts our students. Thank god we are having an election.

[Portion removed.]

2 people like this
Posted by resident3
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 26, 2014 at 2:20 pm

resident3 is a registered user.

"While McGee's actions have been right, his statement is wrong. He need only review the documents, including the legal bills, to see that we have been in a fight with OCR for a long time."

I have a different perspective

I think it was easier for McGuee to resolve the most recent OCR complaint because of the work the Board has done to highlight the problems in resolving issues with the OCR office.

The logic of the editorial bases the entire case on one resolved matter which can be completely different from each of the other complaints.

Like this comment
Posted by Angie Baker
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 26, 2014 at 2:28 pm

Angie Baker is a registered user.

"I think it was easier for McGee to resolve the most recent OCR complaint because of the work the Board has done to highlight the problems in resolving issues with the OCR office."

You mean, McGee could see that conflict and resistance produces a huge amount of wasted time and money? I doubt that he needed the illustration.

I pointed out in my last comment that Catherine Crystal Foster was quoted in the Post yesterday as saying that she doesn't believe the resolution constituted "fighting" OCR, while the other 4 candidates want to rescind the resolution. I don't think the Editor should remove simple statements of facts about the candidates' positions.

Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 26, 2014 at 2:31 pm

Curmudgeon is a registered user.

McGee is out of touch with his school board's culture. He will likely be a short-timer in his job.

The point here is that OCR has offended the Palo Alto school board and must be brought to see the error of its ways.

6 people like this
Posted by Serena Goodall
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 26, 2014 at 3:48 pm

Serena Goodall is a registered user.

I must say that I am perplexed as to why this issue has become such an obsession for so many people. It seems as if everyone who has ever felt unhappy with the schools has latched on to this as the target for their rage and frustration. The school board was inept. The OCR wasn't perfect, either. The district put together brand new bullying policies and procedures. McGee has shown he's committed to transparency. They are fixing the problems. Seems like the OCR is getting heat from a lot of places now to get its act together,too. (Interestingly, one of the people complaining loudest about problems at OCR is Ken Dauber's wife, who was quoted in the NY Times on OCR last month: Web Link "'Title IX can’t have teeth when the O.C.R. is not making reports fast enough, is dramatically underfunded, and is not getting things done,' said Michele Dauber, a law professor at Stanford." No one is calling for her head over that.) I don't see why it's heresy to say that a government agency made mistakes and should fix them. But wouldn't it make sense to spend more time covering the issues like how we teach our children to think, or what we're going to do at Cubberley or how foreign language is going to work in elementary school? My kids are now too old for this to make a difference, but as a voter, I am much more interested in education for all the students than this particular squabble.

Like this comment
Posted by JLS mom of 2
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Sep 26, 2014 at 4:04 pm

JLS mom of 2 is a registered user.

Is the school board making the same concern as Professor Dauber? Professor Dauber, a noted expert on Title IX, seems to be saying that we need more vigorous enforcement by OCR and that she supports Senators McCaskill, Gillibrand, and Harkin and Rep Jackie Spear in giving OCR money, expanded authority, and staff so that it can investigate more schools, make more findings, and impose fines. I am pretty sure you should check because that sounds like the opposite of what Mitchell et al want. Not similar at all. Dauber wants more enforcent. Mitchell wants less enforcement, that's in the resolution. So nothing to do with each other except that north are about OCR.

Like this comment
Posted by Those 183 Votes
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 26, 2014 at 4:46 pm

Those 183 Votes is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by resident3
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 26, 2014 at 7:31 pm

resident3 is a registered user.

Angie Baker,

"You mean, McGee could see that conflict and resistance produces a huge amount of wasted time and money? I doubt that he needed the illustration."

No, I mean that you can't judge everything by the last easily resolved case, and each of the other cases could have been very different.

Dalma and Dauber spoke up at the recent board meeting to rescind the resolution. It would be interesting to know how the other two feel about this after the last board meeting.

Like this comment
Posted by George Orwell
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Sep 26, 2014 at 10:26 pm

George Orwell is a registered user.

Dear Ms. Serena Goodall,

You wrote: "... I am much more interested in education for all the students than this particular squabble."

I wish you that none of your loved ones will even need to deal with any 'squab-ally' situation. I am reminded, again, for the following-

There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent there will be no need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed.

But always—do not forget this Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless.
..." George Orwell, 1984.

Dear Queen or King of this virtual world,
Well done! Restrict the thread, silence the discussion!

Like this comment
Posted by Emma
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 27, 2014 at 12:03 am

Emma is a registered user.

Yes, Serena Goodall, can we get some news coverage on how the candidates differentiate based on new ideas for preparing our kids to be future-ready, to close the achievement gap, to challenge traditional definitions of success, and to innovate?

4 people like this
Posted by Lauras Mom
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 27, 2014 at 9:31 am

Lauras Mom is a registered user.

@Serena- Until your child becomes a victim of violence it might be hard to understand why so many of us are concerned with this topic. And I truly hope that never happens to your child or loved one.

Of course education is for all students, but the physical safety of our children has to be 1st priority. To call victim’s dissatisfaction with the board a “squabble” shows that many people don’t understand the seriousness of these issues. Gunn and district employees treated our daughter’s assault exactly the same way, and it hurt. They didn’t consider it a big deal, didn’t feel the restraining order was justified, didn’t want to learn from their mistakes, etc. That attitude is what got the district into another OCR investigation.

But regardless of who the physical victims are, we are all paying monetarily as long as the board continues this fight against the OCR. No one disagrees that the OCR is far from perfect, but that doesn’t justify the board’s actions. These funds are being spent on this ridiculous attack instead of going to the classrooms that could help all students. So until the board stops, this will continue to be a big issue.

I am also very concerned about McGee releasing calculated costs of compliance. Families like mine have already been retaliated against. We are told our complaints have no merit, that we were talked into filing these complaints by people they think have a vendetta against the district, that we are petty, etc. People already blame us for taking funds away from their own child’s education.

These costs will also be misleading. First of all, if the district had simply followed law in the first place, they would have had zero compliance cost. But still, folks blame the complaint filers, not the district. Second, the district never needed to get so many lawyers involved to deal with investigations. So they inflated the costs themselves. Again, victims will be blamed for that too. Third, what most people don’t understand is that our district chooses to receive millions of dollars from the federal government in exchange for following Title IX laws. I believe it’s around $11 million. So we are still receiving far more funds than paying out. The district can easily stop all OCR investigations entirely if it wants to, but we’ll lose millions of dollars. Finally, it’ll cost even more money to figure out how much we’ve already spent. The fact that it is not an easily accessible number shows how convoluted the accounting is.

I believe that releasing this information will provoke more retaliation against victims, will scare future victims from filing complaints, and I believe this is the board’s intent.

Thank you to the Weekly for this excellent editorial. You hit the mark perfectly.

Like this comment
Posted by resident3
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 27, 2014 at 10:28 am

resident3 is a registered user.

Lauras Mom

I would hope that the costs involved will not be "bills" for each case. It would be irresponsible however to not have an assessment of the costs involved in handling the OCR cases or any requests fro outside the district.

There is a fine line between what the district is doing when it responds to family complaints. It can appear like it's "fighting" the families, it can appear like it's "fighting" the OCR, but I would think it's a process which involves both district and OCR bureaucracy. To the extent that the cost assessments help these two offices streamline their processes, it may ultimately help the families.

Families have nothing to lose with cost assessments because they can and should resort to the OCR when the district fails. Nobody will fault the families for the costs involved in improving practices and averting bad things happening to students. This being said, some of the OCR cases like the open Paly cases I think do not involve a student or family complaint. These blanket cases I would imagine will be complex and expensive no matter what, and the OCR must know this and are pursuing these cases with that knowledge.

4 people like this
Posted by Lauras Mom
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 27, 2014 at 11:27 am

Lauras Mom is a registered user.

I agree with resident3 that we have a right to know what the district is spending money on. But it depends how this information is revealed. If the district just says “we have spent $x on OCR issues”, that is very misleading and will cause retaliation. They would need to split out which costs were indeed necessary (costs of printing requested documents, staff overtime, etc), and which expenditures were due to their choice of adding in lawyers to coach staff responses, filing their own complaints with the OCR, etc. My guess is that the board’s definition of “necessary compliance costs” is very different than most of our definitions. But that will probably not be detailed in their report.

I appreciate your statement that nobody will fault the families for costs, but that has not been my reality. People are already blaming us. And I don’t agree that the Paly case is not warranted because no specific student or teacher filed the complaint. I think the OCR should investigate rape culture at a specific school when it is so obviously out of control as their own students wrote it was. That article was their filed complaint in my opinion.

2 people like this
Posted by village fool
a resident of another community
on Sep 27, 2014 at 12:24 pm

village fool is a registered user.

Dear Laura’s mom-
Thank you. I cannot start to express my thoughts about your courage, caring about all students and more.
JlS mom of 2 wrote on the thread dealing with the legal costs (Web Link):
He should start by talking directly with the families who filed the OCR complaints, including those who spoke at the board meeting on Tuesday night. He should do that alone, and without any senior staff or board members present. And he should be sitting down."
[Portion removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by resident3
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 27, 2014 at 1:10 pm

resident3 is a registered user.

Laura's mom,

"I don't agree that the Paly case is not warranted because no specific student or teacher filed the complaint."

My point was not to say that the case against Paly is not warranted but that a case without a student or family complaint is more complex than one with very specific grievances.

Take the last case which has a very specific timeline and actions on the part of both the district and complainant which have been specifically addressed, fortunately to the satisfaction of the student, and with great improvements for the district as a whole.

It will obviously be much more far reaching to address something as serious as rape. The indictment is not just on one district employee, or one district procedure, it is an indictment of a school culture. The fact that it also involves a crime, I would imagine the police would be involved. I'm sorry but this OCR case is not as simple as stamping a file, and for the sake of everyone involved, it will require very careful management.

1 person likes this
Posted by Lauras Mom
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 27, 2014 at 3:59 pm

Lauras Mom is a registered user.

Oh I agree that the Paly case is not at all simple; I didn't mean to imply that. None of these cases should be as simple as stamping a file, and that one in particular requires even more careful management.

2 people like this
Posted by frustrated mom
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 30, 2014 at 11:20 pm

frustrated mom is a registered user.

Thanks again Palo Alto Weekly for being there for us parents of the victims in the PAUSD/OCR cases. I do not know what would we be doing without you. If it wasn't for you Skelly would had kept all OCR in secret from the public for a lot longer time, and he would be making the same mistakes over and over because he never learned from his mistakes because no one ever slapped him on his hand, therefore he never recognized that what he did was wrong, and that Terman did violated the rights of a disabled child. . I was also sorry to hear that Max our new super said that PAUSD is not fighting OCR, my questions is Who are they fighting? Could it be the families so others learn that if they ask for help to OCR their names would drag their names and persona through the mud till they have no credibility. They will destroy the next family who attends to go and complain with OCR as Barbary Mitchel, and her colleges did with the first family? Wow, yes there is discrimination at PAUSD for parents of students with special ed, females, race, age, disability, you name it. I knew that the firm who found Skelly was not going to get us any better, and here we are another Skelly. I was really looking for a change. When will this end? it seems like they want to drag this for ever, but it is not good for the district. The more they tried to clean themselves, the more they messed up things.

1 person likes this
Posted by Anonymous22
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 1, 2014 at 3:13 am

Anonymous22 is a registered user.

I would actually like to see the district tally how much they would save with an attitude of working with families and erring on the side of following the law. I would love to see them consider how much money families would save not having to hire expensive advocates and lawyers just to ensure the district people don't act in a reprehensible and discriminatory way toward their children. I, too, would love to see McGee dig a little bit to find out what happened before he got here from people other than the ones in the district office who caused so much grief and have no trouble covering up their professional misdeeds with expensive lawyers.

I'm confused by the coverage of the recent complaint. It sounds like McGee handled it well, though - no nonsense, figuring out what happened, dealing with everyone in good faith including the family?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

DoorDash is opening a shared delivery kitchen in Redwood City. What does that say about the future of the restaurant industry?
By Elena Kadvany | 9 comments | 2,944 views

What did you learn last week?
By Sherry Listgarten | 11 comments | 1,696 views

The holiday season
By Cheryl Bac | 2 comments | 663 views

Bond. Bond Touch.
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 652 views