News

Palo Alto school board turns eye to its own efficiency, practices

Two-day retreat begins with discussion of board dynamics, length of meetings

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.

Comments

9 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 17, 2015 at 12:08 pm

Interesting that with some much discussion about the need for information about the District, and its workings, that the word "transparency" does not seem to be used in this discussion.

Transparency is a big issue at every level of government these days--and the PAUSD is clearly no exception.


9 people like this
Posted by Start With.......
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jun 17, 2015 at 1:15 pm

[Post removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by Meeting Recording?
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 17, 2015 at 1:23 pm

Is this meeting being recorded? We can not find a live broadcast.


6 people like this
Posted by Start With........
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jun 17, 2015 at 2:16 pm

It's a "retreat", and those are almost always closed to th outside world.


2 people like this
Posted by Town Square Moderator
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 17, 2015 at 2:39 pm

Town Square Moderator is a registered user.

The Palo Alto Weekly is videotaping the meeting and will be posting it as soon as possible. We hope to have yesterday's session uploaded later today or by morning. It will be available through the Palo Alto Online YouTube account. Web Link


13 people like this
Posted by PA parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 17, 2015 at 5:50 pm

"The board and McGee also discussed how to handle parents' reluctance to go straight to teachers with concerns for fear of retaliation."

Retaliation is real and present. No matter how nicely and politely you talk to a problem-character, the response you get is retaliation. How does a family pass this point safely? If you are dealing with this, the only choice you have is filing an official complaint, which itself brings more retaliation.

I hope this problem gets addressed soon, since so many parents have been bringing up the same issue.


25 people like this
Posted by root and branch
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 17, 2015 at 6:02 pm

It's not just the teachers/principals, I wouldn't trust talking to any of the board members for fear of retaliation.

There needs to be an independent group that provides investigation and anonymity free from any possibility of retaliation from the schools or board.


14 people like this
Posted by sped parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 17, 2015 at 6:11 pm

Question: What retaliations do the teachers fear? Do they experience the same treatment as parents from district personnel?

I remember a teacher who had a conflict with the district during the Skelly years, who said "They lie" of the district office -- which I would never have believed except that has been my experience as well (special ed). Not in small ways, either, but in very calculating and deliberate ways. I have heard the same from many parents, and have heard about and experienced the retaliations, but was unaware the teachers had any such issues.

Can someone please clarify?


20 people like this
Posted by NailOnTheHead
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 17, 2015 at 6:15 pm

Ms Caswell has hit squarely on. a critical issue - there is not a culture of professionalism among staff to respect student safety - many parents are aware that taking issues to teachers is most likely to result in retaliation and no resolution.

Many teachers simply do not want to hear from parents, and take it out on the kids.

The management of the sites allow this because it is easier to do their job if they are not in conflict with their staff. Nobody is left accountable.


What does this mean in practice? It means that sites are ineffective at receiving the feedback needed to problem-solve. There are real problems in the classroom that are ignored, problems buried in the sites, or pushed to board level to solve.

Honestly, why does the board tolerate staff pushing their customer problems onto the board?

In my company if a customer complained to a board member twice , we'd all be replaced. Customer focus is a first-line responsibility. The fact that it is not happening is a huge failing in the classroom and in the site management.

Real world employees go OUT OF THEIRway to find customer issues and solve them.

Long before a board member hears about it.

P.s. You can drain the swamp at the deep end: Jordan


23 people like this
Posted by Start With....,
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jun 17, 2015 at 6:37 pm

The teachers and staff will take it out on your child--that is the immature and cruel way they retaliate. They will bully, pick on, and humiliate your child in front of the classroom. They will see to it that your child gets lower grades for the same quality of schoolwork that other kids get a higher grade, etc.

It is sickening and I strongly suspect this is why the district has so many lawyers on retainer and is looking to increase that number-- they anticipate more and more lawsuits from parents.

I should mention that if and when you complain to the administration, your complaint will be dismissed before it is even examined, and you will be labelled a " problem" parent.


13 people like this
Posted by teacher
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 17, 2015 at 7:29 pm

As a secondary teacher in the district I know this will be perceived as being "On the other side" but frankly I don't care. Most of the parents I have encountered (Yes, there has been the bat%&#* ones but they reside in all other areas of life as well, not just in schools) have come across with sincere needs and questions and are only serving as an advocate for their child. You are paid to respond to emails, you are paid to have meetings, and you are paid to even entertain the notions that may seem obvious to you but since the parents are not part of the educations sphere they are not privy to these inside workings. Most are coming from an honest and sincere place and it's a shame that some teachers are too self-righteous or too "busy" to be bothered. Perhaps if every teacher was a parent we as a district would be in a better place as far as teacher-parent relationships. Communication is key and it takes a village.


4 people like this
Posted by sense at last
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jun 17, 2015 at 7:35 pm

"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. "

This is a great idea! It stops any single board member monopolizing staff time and board meetings and requires board members to work together instead of just furthering own interests.

Board members should really not be wasting the district's time with their own petty interests and instead be dealing with the interests of everyone in the district.


6 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 17, 2015 at 9:47 pm

I would like to see the board come back with their promises.

e.g. When MI was instituted, they promised to look into FLES.

e.g. When finals before winter break was instituted as a pilot, they promised to look into semesters of different lengths and also trimesters.

They also are supposedly looking into putting SI and MI into the same campus, looking into 6th grade campus to free up space in middle schools and high school magnets i.e. for IB, science, arts, etc. Immersion summer schools in conjunction with the City Rec. Dept.

So many ideas are put forward by the community and they are being totally ignored.

We have the ideas to be innovative with out of the box thinking, but instead the BoE just goes on in their own snail pace fashion.


3 people like this
Posted by I'm anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 17, 2015 at 10:12 pm

Some nuggets from the Weekly's YouTube videotaping of five hours of the breakfast meeting:

Facilitator: "I would take anything that is anonymous is not community sentiment."

McGee, furiously nodding his head: "Would you say that again?"

Facilitator: "The group that should be most ashamed is the paper. I think that any paper who prints anonymous . . . " (did not finish his sentence).




9 people like this
Posted by Facilitate this!
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 17, 2015 at 10:15 pm

That facilitator is a ridiculous buffoon. This is like watching the Office. It's like they hired David Brent to facilitate this thing. Those who thought the board couldn't get any dumber, take a gander.


1 person likes this
Posted by Facilitate this!
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 17, 2015 at 10:24 pm

Here: Web Link


13 people like this
Posted by AnonymousAndRetaliation
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 17, 2015 at 10:25 pm

'Facilitator: "I would take anything that is anonymous is not community sentiment."

McGee, furiously nodding his head: "Would you say that again?" '




Here, Max, let me connect two related ideas and repeat this, so you can hear it again:


People are posting anonymous because you are not fixing the retaliation problem.

People are posting anonymous because you are not fixing the retaliation problem.


You see, as long as you allow sites to be run utilizing retaliation against your customers, they cannot honestly communicate with you, or the staff, or the sites, or anyone (except possibly your board)

Do you see the connection with your problem to your other problem? You can fix this.


6 people like this
Posted by sped parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 18, 2015 at 12:52 am

Not when the queen of retaliation works under him and has so much power in the school district. (The sad thing is that if you could read people's minds, at least 3 names would come through the ether from people reading that, though if anyone cared to work on the problem for half a day, they could hear the same three names out loud over and over and over...)


5 people like this
Posted by sped parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 18, 2015 at 1:42 am

'Facilitator: "I would take anything that is anonymous is not community sentiment."

Whatever - If you have heard it before in real life (think real hard) and ignored it, all bets are off...


1 person likes this
Posted by But comments are important
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 18, 2015 at 7:24 am

[Post removed.]


8 people like this
Posted by Waste of money
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 18, 2015 at 7:29 am

What a huge waste of time and money. More to the point there are important issues that the school board should be addressing such as children dying on the tracks. Instead they thought the best use of time was to listen to this rando bloviate and spew uninformed platitudes for 6 straight hours? How much did that cost? What student did it benefit? Why oh why can't we get a board and super who want to do their jobs?


2 people like this
Posted by So many jimmies rustled in here
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 18, 2015 at 8:03 am

[Post removed.]


1 person likes this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 18, 2015 at 9:12 pm

For a way for teenagers to give anonymous feedback to their teachers on nightly homework loads, see the community campaign, "Save the 2,008"--an initiative to create a healthier, happier life for our high-schoolers.

www.savethe2008.com


1 person likes this
Posted by Andrea Wolf
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 18, 2015 at 9:49 pm

I believe that retaliation does take place in the district, there is simply too much talk about it as a possibility for it not to exist at some level. Having said that, I do think it would be very helpful to this online forum if people started to write more often using their own names. I do think that it is very easy for the district office to write off these comments as something posted by cranks as long as people are not willing to identify themselves. Using our real names will stop allowing the district the luxury of ignoring our voices. I find it hard to imagine McGee announcing that he just ignores people who are willing to comment openly under their real names. Perhaps a second best option would be for people to state the ages of their children and schools the child is/has attended. People who do not currently have children attending PAUSD schools should have no problem commenting under their own names, and employees of the district could comment and simply state that they are an employee - no need to use their name if they did not feel it would be politic to do so.


2 people like this
Posted by sped parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 19, 2015 at 12:39 am

Andrea Wolf,

"sped parent" says it all. using names would only open people up to more retaliation, and if you really understood how vicious it can be and how stressful it is not to know what will come down and when (and the one hurt is a child), you would not suggest people use their names.

McGee has ignored direct complaints of retaliation to his face. I can think of a half dozen families off the top of my head who have moved away because of the horrible treatment and retaliation. I can think of at least a dozen who have complained about the hardship of dealing with letters, documents, memos from the district that contain almost nothing that is true. I can think of an educational advocate who has heard from more families than that about exactly that behavior. McGee has been told about this, but is so snowed by one of the worst offenders in the district office, he has basically warned families that if they write him about it, "the district will have to respond." Very Skellyish.

He's going down the same path of hoping the problems blow over or can be covered up or gotten rid of instead of solved. This did not work for Skelly either and will not end well.


1 person likes this
Posted by Facilitator? Or Friend
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 19, 2015 at 12:56 am

>> Retreat facilitator Bill Attea, a longtime Illinois school superintendent...

Hmm, Isn't McGee from Illinois?

>> Facilitator: "I would take anything that is anonymous is not community sentiment."

>> McGee, furiously nodding his head: "Would you say that again?"

>> Facilitator: "The group that should be most ashamed is the paper. I think that any paper who prints anonymous . . . " (did not finish his sentence).


A facilitator's role is to keep the conversation on topic, keep it moving, ensure no fist fights take place, and generally help the participants have a healthy and productive dialogue. It is NOT a facilitator's role to make judgments or spew personal opinions with the group he is facilitating.

The "facilitator" clearly over-stepped his bounds in an area with which he no expertise in this City. It is irresponsible and unproductive for him to have made these statements.

I'll wait and see if the Weekly sues, or just enjoys the press.


Like this comment
Posted by Take Aways
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jul 3, 2015 at 1:49 pm

After watching the videos of the Retreats and recent Board of Education meetings, this is this the take away of the Board's and facilitator's attitudes:

1. Ignore people who ask the Board of Education for help.
2. Ignore people who first go through District channels and try to work with District employees before they ask the Board of Education for help.
3. Encourage people to submit anonymous complaint forms on things such as bullying while discrediting anonymous complaints anywhere else (such as newspapers).
4. Only give credence to formal signed complaints. If you don't have those, no problems exist. Ignore fear, ignorance of process, parents wanting to protect teachers.
5. Ignore questions or issues raised on web sites. Have a blanket belief they all must be false. Do not inquire about problems raised or think you may need to communicate better about the subject.
6. Ignore concerns raised in newspaper articles, even when researched by professional journalists. (DO use the newspaper when you want it, such as for stories you want publicized.)
7. Ignore individual people who come to Board of Education meetings. They don't represent anybody and no one else in the public feels that way.
8. Ignore groups of people who come to Board of Education meetings. They don't represent anybody and no one else feels that way.
9. Ignore people who can't attend Board of Education meetings.
10. Ignore parents and the general public who watch Board of Education meetings at home. Do take seriously District employees who watch Board of Education meetings at home.
11. Ignore people who do speak up. They don't represent thousands of people.
12. Ignore representatives of official groups who speak up. They don't represent larger groups of people.
13. Ignore people who raise concerns about retaliation. Hold a blanket belief that no such thing ever exists.
14. Ignore parents as being crazy and emotional. Discredit them as too passionate. Do use passionate parents when you want something from them.
15. Ignore parent or newspaper raised issues because it hurts employees feelings. Don't consider problems raised and solve them. Don't wonder why public feels it can only raise concerns this way.
16. Ignore parent's real life daily experiences in your District as not real. Do take employee reports seriously as the only way things are really happening.
17. Ignore parent and public input about District vendors and contractors who represent you.
18. Ignore concerns about how employees and contractors treat parents and public. Only take seriously District employee and contractor reports about their own performance.
19. Complain you have to attend meetings.
20. Complain you have to listen to parent and public input.
21. Complain you don't know what to do with parent and public input.
22. Delay any action on parent or public input saying you have to create a process.
23. Hold the attitude outside agencies or investigations are just unfair to us.
24. Communicate attitude of "Poor us. It's not fair. It's all their fault. Poor us."


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

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