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