Embattled Palo Alto school district gets new leadership in 2014

While brand-new school facilities open, district faces entrenched issues

In late September, about six weeks into his new position as Palo Alto Unified School District's superintendent, Max McGee departed from the district's status quo.

With little fanfare, information appeared in the Sept. 23 school board agenda about an August complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights regarding problems with the district's accommodation of a Palo Alto student with disabilities. Upon learning of the complaint, McGee had worked directly with the student's family to find a resolution, without the costly help of district lawyers. He provided to the public and the Office for Civil Rights a chronology of events leading up to the complaint, including the errors made by the district in handling the student's accommodations, 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. The case was resolved within weeks.

Yet at the very same September meeting, the Board of Education and McGee dug in their heels on their lobbying of local and federal officials, pursuant to a resolution the board passed in June challenging the Office for Civil Rights' investigative practices.

The meeting was emblematic of 2014 in the Palo Alto school district: a year when new faces and leadership jumped onto the boat, trying to steer it in a more productive direction while also being pushed by a strong tide of swirling issues, some of the district's own creation.


The first few months of 2014 were dominated by ongoing Office for Civil Rights investigations and questions about the treatment of special-education students in Palo Alto.

In early January, the school district was exonerated in two cases by the federal agency, which found it didn't violate the rights of two disabled students in its handling of bullying situations. However, the parents of both students reported in the wake that their children continued to be bullied in school. At the time, two other civil-rights complaints, out of nine filed within the prior three years, remained pending.

In February, then-Superintendent Kevin Skelly suddenly announced his plan to resign at the end of the school year after seven years leading the district. Though his tenure had been marred by his failure to promptly disclose a December 2012 Office for Civil Rights finding that the district had mishandled an ongoing middle school bullying case, he also oversaw notable changes in the district: a massive building boom, adoption of the K-5 math curriculum Everyday Mathematics, and the move to a school calendar that ends the first semester before the December holidays.

At the start of the year, the district was still working to revise its policy for handling bullying, which was mandated by its December 2012 agreement with the Office for Civil Rights. Debate raged over the reach of this policy — should it simply bring the district into legal compliance by ensuring the safety of legally protected classes (disabled and minority students) or go beyond that to address the complaints of all students?

After more than a year of work, the Board of Education gave the green light in June to a policy that would also cover harassment of students in non-protected classes.

The very same month, the Office for Civil Rights opened another investigation in Palo Alto — this time over alleged student sexual harassment at Gunn High School. This case remains open.


In 2014, the board bid farewell to many other school heads: Gunn High School Principal Katya Villalobos, Ohlone Elementary School Principal Bill Overton, Fairmeadow Elementary School Principal Gary Prehn, Addison Elementary School Principal Jocelyn Garcia-Thome, Palo Alto Adult School's Kara Rosenberg and Jordan Middle School Assistant Principal Ellie Slack all announced in March that they would be stepping down at the end of the school year. (Villalobos stayed in the district, however, heading the Adult School.) Two months later, the news came that Denise Herrmann would be coming from Wisconsin to lead Gunn.

And in April, the news broke that former Palo Alto High School Principal Phil Winston, who resigned in June 2013 citing health and "work-life balance" reasons, had been under investigation at the time by school district officials for multiple allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior involving both staff and students. Winston was reassigned to teach special education at Jordan.

The month of May saw the very beginnings of a 2014 changing of the guard on the school board, with parents Ken Dauber, Catherine Crystal Foster and Terry Godfrey expressing interest in the two seats to be vacated by Barb Mitchell and Dana Tom. At the same time, just as seniors were graduating from Paly and Gunn, the board sealed the deal with Max McGee as the district's new superintendent.

McGee, a seasoned and entrepreneurial educator, had a decades-long career in Illinois as a teacher, principal, school- and state-level superintendent and most recently, head of an elite international math and science academy. He hit the ground running on Aug. 1.

At the board's annual retreat in August, McGee brought in six ambitious goals for the year (later cut down to five), that push consistency, collaboration, professional development, accountability and proactive rather than reactive communication.

During a live TV interview with two high school journalism students in October, McGee announced that he would be convening a committee tasked with analyzing and issuing a set of specific, actionable recommendations on Palo Alto's achievement gap. December saw early work of the committee dedicated to aiding lower-performing minority students, with meetings set to continue through April.

With McGee at the helm, the district also achieved a breakthrough on negotiating the city's lease of Cubberley Community Center, the sprawling Middlefield Road campus whose future remained in limbo for the past two years.

Yet it has largely been business as usual when it comes to Office for Civil Rights issues, save the complaint that McGee expeditiously resolved in September. 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 just under $50,000 for attorneys to research, develop and follow-up on the board's June resolution. McGee has expressed an unwillingness to withdraw two outstanding Freedom of Information Act appeals that the district filed in 2013 over two Office for Civil Rights cases, one of which is closed, despite the urging of newly elected board member Dauber.


The same month McGee began his post in Palo Alto, the roster of Board of Education candidates solidified, with Gina Dalma, a parent and senior education officer for the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and Jay Cabrera, a Palo Alto schools graduate and the only non-parent in the race, joining Dauber, Foster and Godfrey.

The election saw some divisiveness over civil-rights issues, but the five candidates otherwise found much common ground on the main issues facing the district: a need for evaluation and data to make more concrete, evidence-based decisions; the cultivation of innovation; the importance of social-emotional health and reduction of student stress.

On Nov. 4, Dauber earned an early win. In a September interview with the Weekly, he said he hoped a win would indicate backing for the actions he specifically, repeatedly promised during the campaign: opening a 13th elementary school, improving the district's relationship with special-education families, curtailing Office for Civil Rights-related legal costs, bringing foreign-language instruction to middle schools, more careful use of data, and a focus on student mental health and well-being.

Foster and Godfrey were locked in a tight battle for the second open seat for more than a week after election night, as votes continued to be counted. Foster conceded on Nov. 13, and Godfrey eventually secured the win by about 200 votes.

The new board will oversee even more school construction, as a $378 million Strong Schools bond that voters passed in 2008 continues to bear fruit throughout the district. At Paly, the state-of-the-art Media Arts Center and a two-story classroom building finally opened as construction on the school's Performing Arts Center got started. A new classroom building opened at Duveneck Elementary School this school year as talks over the need for a 13th elementary school continued, with McGee urging the board to gather a committee that would research and then issue an informed decision to the board on the topic. The new board will also oversee Gunn's Central Building Project, which includes a "wellness center" that will consolidate all student health services in one space.


Student mental health returned to the forefront of the community's mind this fall after two young men — one a current Gunn High School student and the other a recent Gunn graduate — died by suicide at the train tracks.

The schools' crisis response teams, as well as community organizations, sprang into action, providing counseling and other forms of support to students and staff at Gunn. The high school held a meeting with a panel of mental health experts that was attended by hundreds of parents yearning for answers and help. A Gunn mother helped organize a similar meeting for the Mandarin-speaking community, which more than 100 parents attended.

Students spoke out in their own circles but also publicly on YouTube, social media, blogs and a Gunn parents' email list, sharing their experiences directly with parents, teachers, school administrators and community members. Many said they did so in the hopes of steering the emotional conversation away from finger pointing to a deeper understanding of the culture that makes many students feel like they're emotionally drowning.

One of those students, Martha Cabot, also teamed up with former Gunn English teacher Marc Vincenti to launch Save the 2,008, a grassroots campaign to create a happier, healthier life for Gunn's 2,008 students and teachers. Cabot and Vincenti have become a regular team presence at board meetings, hoping to keep issues about stress, mental health, homework load and AP classes at the forefront of everyone's minds.

Also this fall, Palo Alto's broad-reaching youth-health coalition Project Safety Net found itself at a crossroads after losing its second director in two years. The city also called on its main partner, the school district, to boost its commitment during this transition period. McGee said in October that the district has two proposals for supporting Project Safety Net: either taking the lead and hiring the staff necessary along with procuring more financial support, or working to develop the new wellness center at Gunn.

With the book not yet quite closed on Office for Civil Rights cases, a still-fresh superintendent and two new board members who have yet to make their mark, 2014 might well be remembered as the year that, by its end, left the district poised on the brink of more serious change in 2015.

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4 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 26, 2014 at 3:22 pm

Dear Onliners,

"Save the 2,008"—mentioned in this excellent 2014 overview by Ms. Kadvany—is alive, going strong, and looking ahead into 2015.

Formed by Gunn sophomore Martha Cabot and myself, "Save the 2,008" is a new grassroots initiative to bring a healthier, happier life to Gunn High School.

You can learn about us, and join us, at:

Our plan sets forth six, simple, concrete changes in the school's structure that would make for a different daily atmosphere, reduce stress, relieve anxiety, increase trust, and create connections between students and teachers. (Of which there are exactly 2,008 at the school.)

Do visit our website, won't you?—and consider coming to the next Board meeting, on Tuesday, January 13th, to join the chorus of support. Add your voice to "like" one or more of our six proposals to the District's decision-makers.

In 2015, let's move ahead to help Gunn's 2,008.


Marc Vincenti
Gunn English Dept. (1995-2010)

5 people like this
Posted by Back on topic
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 26, 2014 at 4:48 pm

New leadership was definitely needed. Kevin Skelly's seven years were hardly stellar. I wish him the best of luck in Mountain View Whisman as an interim. Max McGee was off to a good start, but I am pretty sure he peaked two months ago, bringing in his bag of tricks like the committee on minority achievement that will accomplish as much as the homework committee or elementary math committee did a few years ago. The last two suicides at Gunn was an early test that I don't think he passed. I really think he came out here because he was following a superintendent who had turned unpopular, and California would be a good place to spend some time networking and participating in triathlons. The new year, 2015, is time for Max to step up and shine. He has minimized the effect of Charles Young--we almost never hear from him in the Weekly Communication to the Board,his Twitter account was quickly deleted in July, and he doesn't oversee Holly Wade or the special education department--but Max will need a strong leadership team for the district to be successful, not for him because the board will put up with an underperforming superintendent for years. We've seen Max's videos, we've seen his formation of committees, but now he needs to lead. In my opinion, student health did not improve during the Skelly years because of a reactive, defensive, and disjointed approach, and even though this is Max's first year, we are paying the guy a million dollars over three years to perform. For that kind of money, you can be sure the well at Leadership Associates will never run dry. Step up, Max.

Like this comment
Posted by dad
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 27, 2014 at 7:58 pm

So what was so new about this topic. And I don't exactly agree with all the details in this article.

3 people like this
Posted by Public
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 29, 2014 at 11:57 am

And parents need to help Max McGee with the teachers' union. He is fairly powerless with them. It's okay to support your child's teacher and oppose the power-hungry union. I've had kids in the PAUSD for a dozen years and I've been terribly disappointed with union leadership and the constant self-portrayal as victims who need more money every year. The last few years, though, I've had three principals run out by PAEA, and that has been a bit too much.

3 people like this
Posted by Step up Max and lead Max!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 29, 2014 at 12:23 pm

@ Back on topic: I couldn't agree with you more on these things:

"Max will need a strong leadership team for the district to be successful, not for him because the board will put up with an underperforming superintendent for years."


"student health did not improve during the Skelly years because of a reactive, defensive, and disjointed approach"

I was under the impression that all of the candidates for school board stated that they did not think it was a good idea to spend any more money on the OCR legal fees. Terry just caved in and went along with the extension of this fiasco at the first board meeting. What gives here? Our students could certainly use that money to help improve the social/emotional health of the students (and the students parents!) or any number of other things. It is a crying shame that we have people on our board who believe in throwing money down the toilet to try and get the Feds to do things the way they think they should do them.

2 people like this
Posted by a teacher
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 29, 2014 at 4:54 pm

You do realize how ridiculous your statement is about the union, right? The union is comprised of teachers who work in the school district, some who may have been teachers of your own children. The union is not some outside entity, rather it consists of people who work in and some who live in the community.

You can't claim to be for teachers if you are against their unions.

4 people like this
Posted by Not surprised
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 29, 2014 at 7:00 pm

@step up

I wasn't surprised when Terry Godfrey voted with the 4 to continue throwing (our) good money after bad in the OCR mess. I never believed she was sincere when she said she wouldn't support spending more funds on it. Anyone who knows her knows she is a go-along-get-along person, not all that imaginative, and solidly mainstream. She was PTAC president, so not a wave-maker. There was zero chance she would vote against Melissa, Heidi, or Camille on this issue. Despite her efforts to run as a seasoned business manager, come on, let's get real. She's a PTAC/PIE conformist who has never challenged the district in any way. The Weekly wrote in its endorsement that it was suprised by how independent she sounded in the interview. SURPRISE! That's the same editorial board that was impressed with Heidi's intelligence so consider the source.

Look for a lot of 4-1 votes until 2016 when we can finally dump Camille and Heidi and get some more intelligent and thoughtful board members. We need more members who are like Dauber actually independent and not school district/PTA cronies. Gina Dalma would have been a way better choice for the Weekly to endorse that Godfrey. Maybe she will run again.

Like this comment
Posted by Sarah
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 30, 2014 at 8:27 pm

@Not Surprised

I'm actually hoping there is not more people like Duaber on the Board in 2016. PAUSD would be in a world of hurt.

5 people like this
Posted by Teachers yes, PAEA no
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 31, 2014 at 4:58 pm

I like the supposed teacher above who asserts that another poster's statement is ridiculous, without any debate or argument, we are just supposed to fall into line like a Stepford citizen. I am a teacher and I do live in the community. PAEA has just not been as professional as it could be, and CTA and NEA are indeed outside agencies that work with PAEA, but they basically have money and negotiation on their agenda, never the interests of students, and definitely not parents. I do assert my right to be for other teachers and to be against large portions of PAEA, CTA, and NEA.

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