More than a dozen index cards carried on-the-spot reflections from Palo Alto's five school board members and its superintendent on roadblocks hindering the board from becoming the best school board it can be.
They ranged from smaller-picture concerns like being "dismissive or rude" at meetings by checking text messages or having side conversations to higher-level concerns, including micromanagement of superintendent and staff, board members trying to "outdo" one another and parental and staff fear of retaliation.
The board and Superintendent Max McGee discussed such issues in depth during the first day of an annual retreat on Tuesday, taking a rare look inward at how the board itself operates and how it can better do so.
Board member Heidi Emberling offered McGee's decision this spring to ban academic classes during early-morning zero period at Gunn High School as emblematic of many of the operational issues the board has been grappling with, from the distinction between a policy issue that the board should handle versus an administrative decision within the superintendent's authority to make when dealing with intense community pressure on a charged, emotional topic.
After the zero-period issue was raised at a school board meeting and the board decided to bring it back as an agenda item, McGee wrote to the board to suggest he propose a ban, and the next day he did so. The decision was communicated to students, parents and staff over spring break and only came back to the board as an official agenda item after several board members took issue with a decision they said prematurely cut off an important community discussion they had promised to the public. The board also debated whether or not it was within the superintendent's authority to make such a decision, and they long debated during Tuesday's retreat the line between the roles of the board and superintendent.
"Is this a policy-level issue or not? Is it a managerial decision or not? We had three people vote at the board meeting to put it on the agenda but then we didn't," Emberling said. "We had many students say ... 'Can we talk about it?'
"I think a lot of things came up around this issue that we've been talking about today because we don't have clear processes or maybe the clear processes don't exist for every single item."
Retreat facilitator Bill Attea, a longtime Illinois school superintendent who now works as an education consultant, reminded the board that the superintendent is the "CEO of the district," charged with pursuing the district's mission and vision and achieving set goals, but is also governed by the policies, or parameters, set by the board.
Board President Melissa Baten Caswell said that historically, the board has "tried to have less policy and give the superintendent more authority."
McGee said his staff is also often overwhelmed by board requests for information often more for verification of something a board member heard from a community member, he said, than "big ticket items," and there needs to be more clear protocols in place for how to respond to such requests.
"When a board member stops by to talk to a staff member, it's a big deal. ... A lot of it is just 'my neighbor said, this community member said.' That takes up a lot of time," McGee said.
Attea suggested the board be more disciplined in its requests for staff work, and that if a particularly onerous report is requested, at least three members (a majority) should agree it's important for McGee to agree to complete it.
"Any significant report that is wanted of the administration, at least three of you should come to a consensus," Attea said. "If it's just one or two, I don't think the administration should be saddled with getting that report. If an individual wants to go out on his or her own we all have a right to inform ourselves."
Board member Ken Dauber stressed that an eye for efficiency must be balanced with the fact that "the effective functioning of the board and the whole organization depends on well-informed board members."
He added that "access to information is part of the role of the board members (and) part of the oversight function of board members."
Another operational roadblock came into focus Tuesday: repetitive, sometimes off-topic discussions and packed meeting agendas that "lead to lengthy meetings which in turn leads to poor decisions," one index card read.
Earlier this year, Baten Caswell began asking board members to limit their comments to between five and 10 minutes (she said she adjusts based on the item and timing), instead of a previous structure in which each member had as long as he or she wanted to talk about a given agenda item. Board members said Tuesday they like the system and think it's working well.
"As the chair, I am looking for ways for us to be more efficient in our meetings," Baten Caswell said, "Not because I don't love to discuss and hear new information but because I think we're exhausting ourselves and the people around us and not necessarily making better decisions."
She urged her colleagues to listen to each other, and trust that even when they're in disagreement, their points have been heard and don't need to be repeated.
They also discussed the process for getting items on the agenda. Baten Caswell said that board policy mandates that the president and vice president meet with the superintendent to set the agenda, but includes nothing beyond that concerning requests for agenda items. (She has even called past board members to ask how they handled it.) However, there is a board bylaw that states that a board member or member of the public may submit a written request, with any necessary supporting documents, to the superintendent or "designee" at least one week before a scheduled meeting. The board president and superintendent then decide whether the request is "within the subject matter jurisdiction of the Board," the bylaw reads.
Board members typically ask the superintendent, president or vice president to consider an agenda item during the agenda-setting meetings or put it to the full board during board operations, a segment at the very end of their meetings during which they talk about things like events they have or will attend in the community and potential future agenda items.
"Is this broken somehow?" Dauber asked of the current process.
They considered "bundling" board requests for agenda items and scheduling in advance three or so times a year to visit them.
The board and McGee also discussed how to handle parents' reluctance to go straight to teachers with concerns for fear of retaliation. Baten Caswell said "almost every parent I know has brought this up in some context."
"Part of the reason is, we don't have a structured, safe way to give feedback as a parent," she added.
When parents go straight to board members or the superintendent with concerns, which get communicated back to site leadership and teachers, it also negatively affects the relationship between the board, administration and teachers, McGee said.
"The narrative becomes 'the board doesn't trust us; the board doesn't respect us.' ... It creates this sense of fear, distrust," he said.
McGee said starting in the new school year, students will complete a survey after every class and semester, with the goal of collecting more regular feedback.
Parent Christina Schmidt, who serves on a special-education advisory committee, said parents, often frustrated by not receiving a "definitive answer or some type of workable solution," do choose to go up the chain of command.
"I really support the idea of getting options for response channels for parents. ... If we had focus groups or we had other options for parents to speak and in a safe space where they would feel they're actually part of the conversation and part of the work, they would be more ready to really dialogue with the district and the leadership," Schmidt said.
In the second day of the retreat today, the board will review the latest strategic plan survey results from both students and parents and discuss new goals for the next school year. McGee has said some of the new goals will relate to recent recommendations from the minority achievement and talent development committee, forthcoming recommendations from a new enrollment management committee that is analyzing the possibility of opening a new school in the district.
The retreat runs from noon to 6 p.m. at The Westin Palo Alto, 675 El Camino Real. View the agenda here.
To watch a video of the first day of the retreat, go to the Weekly's YouTube channel.