As Superintendent Max McGee completes his first year, the Palo Alto school district is at an important juncture. With his honeymoon over, it's now necessary for the board and McGee to sort out whether McGee is going to be allowed the freedom to lead the district or whether the school board intends to manage him as they did his predecessor, Kevin Skelly.
Next Tuesday and Wednesday, the board and McGee will assess the year, set goals for next year and attempt to reconcile some differences over their respective roles and responsibilities. McGee's enthusiasm for his job and interest in staying could very well hinge on the statements made and decisions reached in these meetings.
The opportunity to lead a well-funded school district in a city known for its innovation and commitment to education, and where the children of Stanford University professors, Silicon Valley executives and venture capitalists are educated, was impossible for Max McGee to pass up a year ago.
But it surely hasn't been the year he was expecting or hoping for.
On the very night last summer when McGee was first introduced to the community, the school board, without even seeking his input, unleashed a barrage of criticism and allegations against the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and one of the complainants by adopting a resolution that alone cost $50,000 in outside attorney fees to craft.
The resolution reflected the obsession of the school board, led by then-president Barb Mitchell, and its law firm, Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost, with OCR's involvement in the district and the board's unbridled willingness to spend huge amounts of money on a futile and entirely avoidable fight with a federal agency.
As expected by the board that had just hired him, McGee dutifully acquiesced on the issue and chose not to probe the past history of the district's legal compliance problems. He understandably preferred to look forward, and tried, with limited success, to focus the board in that direction too.
But just six weeks later McGee received word of a new Office for Civil Rights case. Determined to show he would approach parent complaints differently, he quickly resolved the matter personally and without turning to his law firm. Unintentionally, McGee's quick success drew more attention to how misguided and costly the district's confrontational strategy had been over the previous two years.
Shortly after school started, McGee faced another test, this one from the teacher's union, which was resisting both the full implementation of district homework policies and the use of the district-adopted online platform Schoology for posting homework assignments. The dispute led to an ill-conceived grievance against new Gunn High School Principal Denise Herrmann, filed just days after the suicide of a Gunn student, one of four deaths that rocked the district this school year.
Then in November, McGee had to tip-toe around a mysterious and confusing proposal made by then Vice President Melissa Baten Caswell and supported by Camille Townsend that the board consider adopting an unprecedented policy that seemed carefully designed to prevent newly elected Ken Dauber from participating in any discussions on OCR matters after he took office in December. When publicly revealed, the proposal became radioactive and suddenly disappeared, much to the relief of McGee, who thought it was inappropriate to begin with.
McGee, who implored the board to avoid these kinds of distracting issues that took time and attention away from all the important work that needed to be done, kept being dealt one distraction after another and created a few of his own, including the zero-period controversy. His initial vacillation on eliminating zero period at Gunn led to an active effort by Townsend to rally community opposition to McGee, an effort that included a raft of misstatements by Townsend about the role of the Measure A parcel tax measure in McGee's decision and other aspects of the zero-period issue.
Next week's retreat will hopefully determine whether Townsend is the sole outlier or if other board members share her resistance to McGee's leadership. While we don't agree with everything McGee has done in his first year, he has brought more fresh ideas and an eagerness to solve long-festering problems and instill accountability than the previous administration ever did.
The long-standing culture in our school district is to appease the loudest and most powerful voices in the community. As McGee works to change and democratize the culture, it means advocating for what he believes is right, not for the politically expedient. We hope the board will support this approach next week and agree that its policy-making role needs to be crisp, transparent and clear -- everything that it is not currently.