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."