On youth collaborative, city looks for more from school district

Micromanagement of Project Safety Net has hampered 'bold' leadership

Inconsistent leadership, organizational dysfunction and "paralysis" have plagued youth health coalition Project Safety Net in recent years, placing a heavy administrative burden on city staff and hampering the bold leadership needed to push the Palo Alto collaborative forward, staff told the City Council's Policy and Services Committee Tuesday night.

The two staff members to whom this work has fallen said that while they're committed to the collaborative's goals, it's time to re-evaluate the city's role in Project Safety Net and look to partner agencies to provide much-needed support -- administrative, financial and otherwise. They came to Policy and Services with a recommendation not to replace the group's executive director, following the loss of two directors in the last two years.

"I think Project Safety Net has struggled for awhile with moving forward, with having individuals in organizations doing really deep dives," said Office of Human Services head Minka Van der Zwaag, who along with Community Services Department Assistant Director Rob de Geus has largely managed the coalition of 20 agencies that addresses teen well-being.

"We ended up not doing many things because there was this micromanagement of each step that was taken by some of the partner agencies. ... When you're afraid to be bold and move forward and feeling that each step might be a misstep, it became a real time of paralysis," Van der Zwaag said.

What Project Safety Net needs -- perhaps more than a new director -- is for the school district to step up its commitment, staff said.

"We're really meant to be equal partners in this leadership role," de Geus said. "We'd like to see the district play a stronger role in terms of the programming piece, the services piece and financial contribution to having a collaborative like this. What is the value to them?"

Councilman Greg Schmid supported that idea, suggesting the best next step for staff is to find out what kind of partner -- financial and otherwise -- the school district is willing to be.

"The two organizations that have a critical responsibility are the school district and the city," Schmid said. "I think the starting point is to say, 'Do we have a partner in the school district? And how far does this partnership go?'"

Though Project Safety Net's future remains uncertain, what was clear Tuesday night is that its current model is not working. Staff have suggested pivoting their focus from rehiring and restructuring to providing funding directly to partner agencies and programs. Van der Zwaag said that to many who are frustrated by the group's organizational strife, making grants feels like a "hands-on way of saying, 'Yes, we are doing the work that needs to be done.'"

Van der Zwaag and de Geus said that the nature of the executive director position, which is full-time yet provisional and offers no benefits, has failed to attract the kind of professional who would be able to transcend the collaborative's management difficulties. They maintained that embarking on another hiring process is not a worthwhile use of time or money. During the full year Christina Llerena served as director, the group spent about $94,000 on personnel, Van der Zwaag said.

"We feel at this point it's not good money to spend given the experience we had with the last two directors," de Geus said. "We should take a step back, talk to the council about options for maybe looking at this a little differently and talk to the school board, a key partner, about their level of interest and commitment. Are they willing to potentially support a director position or partner with us so we can actually do a different kind of search for a different caliber (person)?"

Councilwoman Gail Price expressed concern about staff's recommendation not to rehire a director and become, essentially, a granting agency with only $2 million in council funding to dole out.

"It just seems that without a center to the hurricane, it's going to be tough to continue to make really important contributions," Price said. "There's a lot of stake here. This is huge."

Price also expressed concern about another staff suggestion to create a shared leadership. She asked, Without partners who share the financial as well as organizational burden, how would it function successfully and sustainably?

Price offered the example of Redwood City 2020, a collaborative with a similar mission -- bringing together private and public agencies to work on youth and family health -- but a very different structure. All of its partners pay an annual membership fee of $24,000 and are required to contribute other resources, such as staff, to help advance the group's goals.

"We have the foundation for a work plan that has some meaning, but I think if we don't look at other structures or models that look at this a little bit more strategically -- meaning accountability, resources and funding -- then this model won't be sustainable because eventually, as several people are pointing out, the money will go away," Price said.

Councilman Greg Scharff opposed the idea of granting funds directly to organizations or programs, saying that model "seems separate to the notion of keeping the collaborative together."

He also demanded more clarity from staff on next steps for the coalition.

"I'm not here to dream. I'm here to make decisions based on good staff work that says, 'We have these opportunities; we can go in this direction; Redwood City is doing this.' ... I want choices that have staff backup and say what we are supposed to do here from an analytical standpoint," he said. "I haven't seen that."

De Geus responded that the meeting was intended more as a study session to discuss Project Safety Net's status and gauge what concrete next steps could be, rather than asking the committee to make a decision. He said staff would meet with City Manager James Keene to discuss the committee's feedback before having a "courageous conversation" with the school district and returning with more specific ideas for a path forward.

But in the agenda for next week's school board meeting, Superintendent Max McGee wrote that it was "disturbing" that there was no mention at the Policy and Services committee meeting of two proposals he had discussed the day before with Keene and his staff. One proposal, he told the Weekly Thursday, involves the school district taking the lead on Project Safety Net, including hiring staff and providing financial support. The second focuses on creating wellness centers at Palo Alto's two high schools, an idea de Geus also put forth at an Oct. 9 meeting of the collaborative.

"Our proposal was not presented and ... our staff was not afforded the opportunity to participate in any discussion," McGee wrote in the agenda.

At the Oct. 28 board meeting, he said, he will "reiterate the importance of the collaborative venture of Project Safety Net and will briefly outline what we think might be a good solution to the problems that PSN has faced as directors have chosen to leave."

Related content:

Teen well-being collaborative seeks new direction, again

As director leaves, Project Safety Net hones mission

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1 person likes this
Posted by neighbor and pausd parent
a resident of Stanford
on Oct 22, 2014 at 1:58 pm

My advice to any project to help make schools safe and welcoming is to have BOTH activities/programs and engaged/trained personnel (not just hired playground monitors) during recess.
FUN programs/activities the kids can choose to participate in, wandering and available personnel out with those enjoying free play, and have mental health training for all those running these programs.
This early and ongoing availability to students and witnessing of behaviors can make for an ongoing safe and welcoming campus, AND sow the seeds for appropriate future behavior into high school.
The personnel will report any and all behaviors they witness, and intervention can be immediate.
Playground free time can be free access time for bullies and their victims. Both types os students need help learning appropriate social behaviors, which can be taught in school where it is a necessary skill to feel safe and for all of their lives.

3 people like this
Posted by Sad situation
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 22, 2014 at 2:27 pm

As someone who has attended PSN meetings in the past, I can say that the school district's lack of interest in PSN has been a longstanding problem. PSN was originally intended to engage the school district more in executing PSN's plan, but the district long ago effectively pulled out. It was left to others to try to advocate for PSN's goals in the district, outside of the framework of PSN. The hard reality is that trying to improve teen wellbeing without involving schools in a deep way is not going to work. You have to go where the kids are, and that is at school.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 22, 2014 at 3:51 pm

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to shut this organization down, and admit it wasn’t a good idea to begin with.

Far too many of the stated, and seemingly unstated, objectivess of this organization clearly fall on the parents—not some 3rd/4th5th party which no real idea how to solve these problems to begin with.

With two directors leaving in close succession, and no explanation to the public as to why the short tenures—clearly there are problems here that need a lot of public airing. Given the lack of transparency in both the PAUSD, and the CPA—this organization is not likely to do more than spin its wheels and spend our money.

Time to thank all concerned, and shut the doors.

2 people like this
Posted by PAUSD parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 22, 2014 at 6:58 pm

@ Bob,
I don't know about shutting down the organization, but I was thinking exactly what you are expressing: that one of the biggest problems here is that there is no way to effectively do something like this without partnering with parents, and there is no way to partner with parents unless the school district develops a new culture of transparency, open communication, and collaboration.

There are a few insiders, but for most of the rest of us, it's like the district long ago instituted some kind of policy whereby they just don't want teachers and staff leaving any kind of communications trail just in case -- and as a consequence, no one communicates. Circle the wagons. They're more willing to fail our kids or risk the consequences of poor communication -- which are negative and considerable -- than to be open and learn how to communicate well.

In many ways, what the City and deGeus are expressing is exactly the dissatisfaction many parents express in dealings with the school district over the past administration.

The pre-existing leadership in the district is neither intrinsically motivated to change this nor frankly adept or talented enough to. They got a great leader in McGee, but unless he steps up and quietly orchestrates some early retirements and long-overdue exits, and replaces key people with motivated, energetic, forward-looking individuals interested in actually communicating with and serving families, there's no point in expecting more involvement of the district, it's just going to be more of the same.

I'm discouraged to read this article, but not surprised. I'm afraid I agree also with "Sad Situation" above as well.

Like this comment
Posted by who centered
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 22, 2014 at 8:50 pm

Sad situation,

"The hard reality is that trying to improve teen wellbeing without involving schools in a deep way is not going to work. You have to go where the kids are, and that is at school."

I have seen some knock out ideas and suggestions on these threads which would have had those 2 million making 10 by now. Sad Situation, you have nailed the real deal - you have to go to the kids and that is at school!!

I'm not talking about having referrals to free counseling on campus. This would be things that make counseling not a growth industry. Sorry ACS, it's not great when your services are growing.

Max should frame this quote."You have to go to the kids and that is at school." Social emotional cannot be outsourced anymore than you could outsource it effectively at home. Sure you can hire a counselor, tutor, coach and buy your kid everything, and never be home, but.....

Solving academic stress is the first step of going to the kids at school. And it's not just academic demands, but putting everything that is school related currently on steroids down a notch. One notch.

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

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