News

Editorial: Another McGee flip-flop

Palo Alto school supe puts legal counsel plan on hold after winning board approval

Palo Alto school Superintendent Max McGee is now backing away from a plan he was trumpeting months ago and which the school board already approved 4-1 in June.

Saying he was "disheartened" by a discussion at last week's board meeting, McGee says he's giving up on hiring an inside general counsel for now, after he and the board have spent hours on the subject and candidates have been recruited.

The only thing that was "disheartening" at last week's meeting was board member Camille Townsend's obstructionist behavior and President Melissa Baten Caswell's inability to control the discussion, which never should have been on the agenda in the first place.

Townsend had been the only board member opposed to McGee's proposal to hire an in-house legal counsel. Now she is attempting to subvert the rest of the board by throwing up the same objections she raised four months ago. Worse, she seems to have succeeded in getting McGee to give up out of frustration.

Showing the same indecision and lack of resolve he did with the zero-period debate earlier in the year, McGee made the mistake of granting Townsend's request to have the board discuss the position again, this time to revisit whether the new general counsel would report to him only, or to him with a "dotted line" to the board.

The discussion served no purpose anyway since both state law and the board's own policies spell out clearly that the school board, as the client, must appoint and evaluate its legal counsel, whether legal services are provided by outside law firms or by inside counsel. Policies also state that board members must go through the superintendent when desiring information from legal counsel.

Back in June, McGee told the board that his leadership team and school administrators supported hiring an inside counsel and could see plenty of benefits to being able to consult quickly with an attorney. He also pointed out the advantages of having counsel present at school board meetings to provide immediate guidance on legal or compliance matters, and of saving money by reducing the use of outside attorneys. The board acted.

It is not McGee's place to unilaterally undo a previous decision of the board, nor is it right for a single dissenting board member to obstruct implementation of a decision already made.

With the district's outside law firms badly underperforming, McGee should show increased resolve to get this position filled, not retreat because he is "disheartened" by the behavior of his own board.

— Palo Alto Weekly editorial board

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Comments

57 people like this
Posted by Real journalism please
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 23, 2015 at 10:35 am

So sick of the Weekly constantly blaming the school district for everything because they can't come up with anything better to report. Don't like the school district? Blame Skelly. Don't like Skelly? Call for McGee. Don't like McGee after all? Blame him too. All the Weekly does is criticize everyone involved in school administration (other than Ken Dauber), trumpet praise for Dauber, and cover up issues that make Dauber look bad (i.e. censoring all comments pointing to the Daily Post's revelation that he had contacted OCR to look into cases at Paly and then telling the voters he had zero involvement in order to get himself elected). Unless the Weekly can clean up its bias problems, it is not to be trusted. Stop censoring comments you disagree with, stop endless complaining about the school district, and move toward neutral reporting that fairly discusses the contributions of ALL school board members (not just Dauber is good, Townsend is bad, and we'll ignore everyone else), supplemented with balanced, reasonable editorials focusing on making our schools a better place.


25 people like this
Posted by biased reporting or what?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 23, 2015 at 10:40 am

It's now obstructionist when Camille offers an opinion? It's one board member - you vote on it! There have been plenty of 4-1 votes recently but only one described as "obstructionist".

Sheesh, Weekly, get it right!


30 people like this
Posted by Steve
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Oct 23, 2015 at 10:45 am

I agree 100% with Real Journalism Please. And let me add that everything I've seen indicates that McGee has been an incredibly good school superintendent. Enough already on the endless bashing PAUSD leadership.


Posted by JLS mom of 3
a resident of Barron Park

on Oct 23, 2015 at 11:32 am


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22 people like this
Posted by Time for Townsend to go
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 23, 2015 at 11:41 am

I think Camille Townsend has always been self-centered [portion removed.] But at this point I think she has veered off into doing harm to the district for her own purposes (whatever they might be in the moment). In this case, she [portion removed] harangued the board and Max over a decision that she was outvoted 4-1 on, threw up a smokescreen of confusion about it, and then everyone gave up in disgust.

That is not democracy.

But let's please give credit where it is due. Camille could not do this without Melissa Caswell allowing her to. [Portion removed.]


15 people like this
Posted by Reasonable
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 23, 2015 at 12:29 pm

@JLS mom of 3,
We all want McGee to succeed, but I think we all want a superintendent like you described more than we have one yet. McGee could go either way right now, and he's actually been less transparent than his predecessor. I want to help him feel comfortable being transparent, but it isn't going to happen with some of the old (untrustworthy) guard still in the district office and holding him in sway, especially if they get their own personal lawyer on a chain in their midst.

I think inserting a lawyer at board meetings and in the inner circle echo chamber of the district office is a big mistake. Are parents going to need to bring their own lawyers to school board meetings? It's oppressive, because there is no mechanism to make the lawyer serve the families and education first over the personal/professional interests of individuals in the administration. So, while it wasn't for what I would consider the right reasons on Townsend's part, I'm glad this happened.

I am also glad to see McGee really thinking about what is the right thing to do. I am standing up and cheering for "flip-flopping" which is really taking the time to think something through, when there is time.

I think we should hire the county counsel, though, not in-house, because that's what other similar districts around us are doing and saving money. They'll be able to give McGee better impartial guidance rather than ending up working as CYA for employees AGAINST the interests of our children. As we saw with the current firms the district already hires, they can come to completely opposite conclusions on the same issue. We need help that is geared first and foremost to help provide the best education for our kids, and the best support for families, and that's the county counsel.


12 people like this
Posted by Walter
a resident of another community
on Oct 23, 2015 at 12:42 pm

Its s time to ask for a comparison on legal bills before and after Dauber. He promised a reduction. Lets see if he delivered on his promise.


20 people like this
Posted by biased reporting or what?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 23, 2015 at 1:25 pm

@Walter, don't hold your breath. Ken hasn't managed to execute on commitments he made that he has control over such as "I pledge myself to make available to the public, via the Web, all of my communications with district staff and other board members".

I guess he'll claim he's trying to reduce legal bills by creating an agenda item to: "discuss authorizing the Superintendent to contact OCR and ask whether PAUSD is eligible to enter into a Resolution Agreement". You know, that agenda item that was previously voted down 4.1? Now, let's see how the Weekly reports on that agenda item!


16 people like this
Posted by FUD
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 23, 2015 at 10:13 pm

Camille Townsend [portion removed] views are out of step with the majority of the community [portion removed.] Here are just a few things that the community supports that Camille Townsend does not:

1. Termination of teachers who sexually groom students. Dauber said publicly that he felt this had no place in the schools and also apologized to the girl and her family. What has Camille said?

2. Rights for transgender students. Dauber and Emberling worked with the LGBTQQ community to bring forward a new policy for student civil rights. Camille attacked it at the last meeting.

3. Cooperating with OCR. Ken wants to pursue a settlement. Is there any sane person who does not think settling rather than fighting is a good idea? Camille doesn't.

4. Cutting legal fees and terminating FFF. [Portion removed.]

5. Returning to neighborhood schools. Ken Dauber is trying to reopen our closed elementary schools and bring sanity to our traffic and school attendance situation, as well as give choice programs a place where they can flourish without driving traffic. Camille wants choice programs all over town with cars, traffic and grid lock.

But basically, at the root of all of it, is Camille is for Camille. She wants to be the star of her own tiny stage. [Portion removed.] She managed to get her way on the general counsel despite losing a vote 4-1. And by the way, this board has never voted at any time on the agenda item regarding OCR in the past as 'biased" claims. It has never before been considered, so that's just another example of being "confused" and sowing misinformation and FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt). [Portion removed.]

But let's give Melissa full credit. She isn't doing her job managing Camille's increasingly out of control antics so I guess she agrees with her.


15 people like this
Posted by unsolicited legal advice
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 24, 2015 at 12:57 am

One benefit of a general counsel would be to stop Ms. Townsend from giving uninformed legal opinions from the dais. I sympathize with Dr. McGee. It was such a waste of everyone’s time at a late hour to have to listen to Ms. Townsend argue against state law regarding the oversight of school district attorneys. And how about the conflict of interest fiasco when Ms. Townsend attempted to amend board policy to censor board members based on campaign contributions over $250 and past employment. She attempted to apply both state and federal laws to board members that are only applicable to appointed officials. Dr. McGee reported that staff had contacted the County Counsel and the CSBA regarding these two laws and were told that neither law applied to elected officials (in fact applying them to elected officials would violate free speech protected by the first amendment). Camille’s dismissive response to Dr. McGee was, “We certainly can as a local body add this.” See Web Link at 3 hrs 8 min

The legal advice given to staff by County Counsel and the CSBA was that the FPPC has sole oversight for conflict of interest issues for elected officials. Ironically just a few weeks before this board meeting the FPPC had finished an investigation of Ms. Townsend that resulted in a warning letter. See Web Link Perhaps Ms. Townsend should reconsider her vote on hiring a general counsel.


8 people like this
Posted by Legal eagle
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 24, 2015 at 1:46 am

Dauber and Godfrey promised during the campaign to try to reduce legal fees. What has happened?

First, in June Dauber used the annual evaluation of lawyers, required by the board bylaw, to try to force an RFP process for the worst of the bunch, Fagen Friedman. They are the firm who ran the crazy "fight the guvmint" strategy on OCR, and who screwed up the investigation of Kevin Sharp. McGee has publicly said that only one member of the firm is worth working with, and required anyone who wants to use them to go through him personally. Dauber wanted to approach the County Counsel as other districts do to see if the district could get competent services at a reasonable cost. The result: A 4-1 vote against Dauber.

Second, Dauber and Godfrey pushed for a GC to exercise some cost control and get better advice. They won that one with a 4-1 vote. The key question is in this editorial: why was there a board meeting about this again? The board authorized the position, and the law says what the reporting relationship has to be. At the board meeting Emberling, Godfrey and Dauber made that perfectly clear. Looks like McGee and Caswell can't manage Townsend's FUD, and gave her a second bite at the apple. That's a strategy for more FUD, not effective governance.


7 people like this
Posted by FUD
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 24, 2015 at 8:21 am

Holy Cow, that FPPC warning letter against Townsend is super interesting. [Portion removed.]

The letter says that she repeatedly had meals provided by an investment banking firm in SF that does municipal bond work according to Bloomberg. "Stone & Youngberg LLC, an investment banking company, provides underwriting and investment advisory services in the United States. The company structures, underwrites, distributes, and trades California municipal bonds" including during the time that PA was preparing to run the Measure A campaign, but then never reported those meals. That went on every year for three years.

As a result, the FPPC wrote "Your actions violated the Act because you failed to timely report the gifts noted above." They gave her a warning letter and let her know if she does it again, she would face a $5000 fine.

[Portion removed.]


8 people like this
Posted by FUD
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 24, 2015 at 8:52 am

According to district records, Stone & Youngerg was the underwriter for the "Qualified School Construction Bonds (QSCB)" for PAUSD in 2010. They were paid "a discount of $112,500.00" in 2010 in connection with that work. See Item 17, Web Link, October 24, 2010

In June 2014, Stone & Youngberg sent over to Lou Lozano a list of all the hosted meals, which included several for board members and for Kevin Skelly, and even for Skelly's secretary from 2010-2012 while that firm was doing business with the district -- that is, of gifts being provided to board members and the Superintendent, all of whom are covered by the reporting requirements of the FPPC.

See: Web Link pages 179-81

Apparently the FPPC investigated whether or not Townsend properly reported all her free treats and goodies from our municipal bond firm.

Elected officials should know better than to accept meals from a contractor. The hosted meals were provided at the CSBA conference, where law firms and contractors host fancy and cozy receptions where they can lobby for businesses. Ethical board members do not attend these things, particularly those that are hosted by their own active contractors. Otherwise they are accepting gifts from businesses with a direct financial interest in the district.

Where such gifts are accepted, they have to be reported on the elected official's Form 700 and disclosed to the public. Townsend never disclosed hers. Did the other board members disclose their free fancy food provided by our municipal bond firm in a cozy hotel suite out of town where they schmoozed for district business? Or was it just Townsend who failed to report these gifts (for three years) as required by law?

Dana Tom: Web Link
Kevin Skelly's warning letter: Web Link
Melissa Caswell: Web Link

Attendance at these kinds of events is a corrupt practice that should not be allowed. Attending swanky parties, drinking free booze, and eating fancy food provided by a district contractor does not pass the red face test and the fact that it happens in San Diego instead of down the street does not make it invisible or outside the law. The fact that these officials accepted the gifts in the first place is really questionable whether or not it is lawful. [Portion removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by get a life
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 24, 2015 at 8:53 am

@ FUD,

Yeah, really interesting. I mean, they found there was one year she didn't report a meal gift of $99.00!!! Wow, she needs to go. I mean, a whole $99.00!! How can you live in Palo Alto on not know that you got a meal gift of $99.00!


2 people like this
Posted by FUD
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 24, 2015 at 9:00 am

Actually there were 3 years that she didn't report meals provided by a district contractor, which is a requirement of state law known to every elected official.

[Portion removed.]


18 people like this
Posted by Reasonable
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 24, 2015 at 9:24 am

@life,
$100 meals for a decionmakers from someone who stands to make a lot of money from the district ARE concerning. And make you wonder if they are just the tip of the iceberg in a district that has a $400 million construction bond [portion removed.] The school district is as major an economic concern as the City, with none of the checks and balances, such as they are.

FUD - there are ways to provide checks and balances, but it would involve restructuring the district from outside, with voter help. You up for it? With that kind of entrenched power, it's not for the faint of heart. But would do a lot of good.


5 people like this
Posted by unsolicited legal advice
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 24, 2015 at 11:40 am

It appears that PAUSD got caught in a FPPC investigation of Stone and Youngberg’s business practices. It appears that Stone and Youngberg were responsible for a major portion of the “capital-appreciation bonds” that have saddled school districts across the state with debt. “Stone & Youngberg made $813,751 for work on a $100 million bond offering for Poway schools in 2011, a deal that was later exposed by Michigan blogger Joel Thurtell because it would cost $1 billion to repay over 40 years. The deal was seen as disastrous for taxpayers, and led to reform legislation banning such borrowing structures, co-authored by Assembly members Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, and Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo.” See Web Link

Stone and Youngberg were investigated by the FPPC to see if they were participating in “pay to play” gift giving strategies. I wonder if Stone and Youngberg transactions are at the heart of why we refinanced our school bonds a few years ago to mitigate monstrous interest payments?


2 people like this
Posted by get 'em, FUD
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 24, 2015 at 12:22 pm

@FUD,
You're right. It was 3 years. in those other two it was $78 and $66. And that's the total she got for the whole of each of those years.

What's with the FPPC saying: "However, since you do not have a significant history of violating the Act, and the gifts received were not much over the $50 reporting threshold, we are closing your case"

How dare they be reasonable. This is an appalling act of abuse by an elected official. I mean, $78 in one year?


Like this comment
Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 24, 2015 at 12:38 pm

The 2010 Qualified School Construction Bonds were a great deal for PAUSD. The interest was federally subsidized as part of the stimulus programs, and total district interest payments to borrow $25M for 15-20 years are <$1.5M. Here's the bond audit with the interest schedule: Web Link

Don't know anything about Stone & Youngblood, but those were pretty attractive bonds for PAUSD.


5 people like this
Posted by FUD
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 24, 2015 at 12:52 pm

I don't agree with minimizing violations of ethics rules. As described in the Union Tribune article, the fancy dinners provided by this particular bond firm came under investigation by the FPPC. The FPPC launched the probe of the dinners because accepting them without reporting them (as Camille Townsend did) violates the law.

The FPPC stated that the purpose of the investigation was to look into dinners being provided to school board members in districts where the bond firm hoped to sell its shady wares:

“We opened an investigation based on the article you wrote, so we are looking at unreported gifts by Stone & Youngberg to officials,” said Gary Winuk, chief of the commission’s enforcement division. “The whole purpose of the law is so the public knows which public officials are receiving gifts, so they can decide for themselves how it affects doing their jobs on behalf of the public.”

Just so you know, PAUSD's dealings with this firm and its corrupt hospitality and the illegally nonreported dinners made the papers:

"Officials from Palo Alto Unified, in the Bay Area, have had meals with Stone & Youngberg that were referenced in business dealings.

In a January 2012 memo to board members, Superintendent Kevin Skelly attached a letter from Stone & Youngberg vice president Anna Van Degna, introducing it by saying, “You may remember Anna as our host at the Stone & Youngberg dinner at CSBA,” which is the California School Boards Association.

In the attached letter, Degna discusses the tax base of the area and how much bonded indebtedness it can sustain, and then goes on to say, “Will you be attending the Superintendent’s Symposium in Monterey next month? If so, I hope you can join us at our dinner at the Pebble Beach Lodge.”

It appears that Townsend's attitude toward following the law is lax, whether the matter is the state ethics law for elected officials or whether it is following federal civil rights law it appears that she thinks she is above it. The posts above criticizing the FPPC for issuing the findings against Townsend and Skelly -- WHICH THEY NEVER DISCLOSED TO THE PUBLIC -- are just more examples of what is wrong here.

We need term limits because Townsend has been on this board for 13 years and she has developed cozy relationships with contractors of the precise sort that need to be policed. Two terms should be the limit. [Portion removed.]




8 people like this
Posted by FUD
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 24, 2015 at 1:10 pm

Here's some more press on this. The LA Daily News called it "political crookedness" to accept these meals and not report them:

Web Link

"Perhaps one of the most disturbing patterns that can be seen in the violations the FPPC doled out last year is a litany of officials fined for not reporting pricey dinners and gifts from bond underwriter Stone & Youngberg.

The violations were mostly small but taken collectively are significant. Prompted by a series of stories in the San Diego Union Tribune, the FPPC found that 282 officials had received gifts exceeding $50, the limit for disclosure, from the company. Of those, only 22 had reported the gift on a required annual economic interest statement."

So 22 officials did report them. But Camille Townsend, Melissa Caswell or Kevin Skelly.

Oh and by the way, the LA paper notes it should have come as no surprise, since in 2013, the FPPC investigated this exact thing with other bond firms and found similar patterns of cronyism and "crookedness." Everyone was on notice. But our board didn't do the right thing.

[Portion removed.]

The Mercury News reported on the FPPC investigation and quoted the FPPC that: "The intent of the Political Reform Act is to provide transparency to the public, to try to show the importance that public officials should be making decisions in the best interest of the public and not for themselves," said Jay Wierenga, the commission's communications director. Web Link

The Merc noted that only 16 officials in the Bay Area received the warning letters. 6 of them were from PAUSD: Skelly, Caswell, Townsend, Tom, Emberling, and Klausner.

[Portion removed.]

We need a more ethical leadership team.




Like this comment
Posted by lol
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 24, 2015 at 2:13 pm

FUD, you got them dead to rights. We can't have our officials not report over $200.00 in meals that they received across three years. That sort of thing should trigger an automatic recall.


Like this comment
Posted by FUD
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 24, 2015 at 2:15 pm

[Post removed.]


5 people like this
Posted by Cheap date
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 24, 2015 at 3:20 pm

@lol isn't it sad that our school board can be influenced improperly for a few fancy dinners? I would have hoped they wouldn't just sell themselves for so little.


12 people like this
Posted by Terman mom
a resident of Terman Middle School
on Oct 24, 2015 at 4:57 pm

I think its up to the voters to decide if hiding meals from district contractors is an issue or not. That's the point of the law.

Why are school board members going to San Diego on the taxpayer dime anyways? How does that benefit students? How about staying in town and reading a book about how not to spend a million dollars on unnecessary lawyers instead?


14 people like this
Posted by Roger Dodger
a resident of another community
on Oct 24, 2015 at 6:08 pm

Roger Dodger is a registered user.

This is a disappointing "editorial" at best. The Weekly's bias against the district and against pretty much everyone in leadership at the School Board other than Ken Dauber are glaring and obvious. Any pretense the paper may have had to objectivity went out the window ages ago and this is just another nail in the coffin of the hopes for some real, responsible journalism in Palo Alto. [Portion removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by parent2
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 24, 2015 at 6:11 pm

parent2 is a registered user.

[Post removed.]


5 people like this
Posted by Roger Dodger
a resident of another community
on Oct 24, 2015 at 6:39 pm

Roger Dodger is a registered user.

[Post removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by parent2
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 24, 2015 at 6:58 pm

parent2 is a registered user.

[Post removed.]


5 people like this
Posted by Roger Dodger
a resident of another community
on Oct 24, 2015 at 7:47 pm

Roger Dodger is a registered user.

[Post removed.]


1 person likes this
Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 24, 2015 at 8:19 pm

Fred is a registered user.

@Terman mom - it appears they were in San Diego for the annual California School Board Association (CSBA) conference. Below is the description, it seems legitimate to me. School board members, so far as I know, do not have much background in governance, education law, educational best practices, etc., so utilizing the state association's conference to receive training makes sense to me.

AEC is CSBA's premier continuing education program - delivering practical solutions to help governance teams from districts and county offices of education improve student learning and achievement. Conference attendees will leave with practical ideas and a renewed commitment to help their board accomplish the critical work ahead.


2 people like this
Posted by parent2
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 24, 2015 at 10:13 pm

parent2 is a registered user.

Well if they put any of that training to use and learned not to accept free meals from contractors and then not reporting them that would be fantastic. But if they just go for the free trip and sit dead-eyed through the presentations and then go eat fancy meals for free without thinking about whether they are accepting gifts from contractors then that seems like on its face that "training" did not work and is therefore is a waste of taxpayer money.


1 person likes this
Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 24, 2015 at 10:19 pm

Fred is a registered user.

Yes, I imagine the glamour of school board state conventions in sunny San Diego and some free eats is a considerable attraction for our volunteer board members. It's a wonder more candidates don't sign up.


10 people like this
Posted by Anonymous22
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 24, 2015 at 10:44 pm

Anonymous22 is a registered user.

@FUD,
Be careful, or when they're done railing against the Department of Education OCR, they'll spend another million in legal fees going after the FPPC for "embarrassing" them. Oh, that's right, they'll sick their own private taxpayer funded lawyer on the FPPC for "embarrassing" them...

Note to Rodger: when the Weekly acts as 4th estate, they are not against our district, they are for our district and against bad governance of our district. Our district exists for our children, and when you protect the corrupt or inept against our children, you are against our district.


6 people like this
Posted by parent2
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 24, 2015 at 10:46 pm

parent2 is a registered user.

OK, I am confused. Are you arguing that the law is dumb, that it shouldn't apply to volunteers, that board members "don't have much background" in ethics law, or what exactly? What exactly is the reason that this totally straightforward law that everyone knows about, and which isn't even hard to figure out for yourself via common sense (don't take gifts from lobbyists who do business with your governmental agency) should not apply to Camille Townsend et all? Is it that they are too dumb, too naive, too inexperience, or the law is just dumb and they should be able to eat all the bbq shrimp that the bond bankers want to stuff down their gullets? Please. Explain.


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