News

Editorial: A transparency gap

Palo Alto school district violates its own policy in depriving public of timely meeting minutes

Palo Alto school trustees use the word "transparency" so often a casual observer might be persuaded they mean it.

The district's strategic plan lists it as one of five top goals: "Create a focused, transparent governance process that is a model of informed communication, evidence-based decision-making, and clarity of responsibility between Board, District and Sites."

And the top initiative the board has approved to achieve the goal? "Engender trust with the community through frequent, clear, transparent and varied communication."

Sadly, the board majority and Superintendent Max McGee have repeatedly demonstrated through their action and inaction that "transparency" is merely a talking point.

As reported last week by the Weekly, the Palo Alto school district is last among 10 Bay Area school districts surveyed in fulfilling its most simple and basic transparency responsibility -- completing timely official minutes of its meetings.

Board-adopted district policy, based on the California School Boards Association model policy, is to approve minutes of the prior meeting at the next regular meeting of the board. For the last two years Palo Alto has consistently violated this policy, taking as long as 10 months to prepare and approve minutes documenting its decisions.

By contrast, all other school districts checked by the Weekly -- Menlo Park, Mountain View-Los Altos, Mountain View, Los Altos, Sequoia, Redwood City, Los Gatos-Saratoga, Pleasanton and Piedmont -- complete minutes either in time for the next meeting or, at most, within a few weeks.

In Palo Alto, the board two weeks ago approved the minutes from its Oct. 13, 2015, meeting. Even worse, on Aug. 25, 2015, the board reviewed minutes from October and November of 2014, along with minutes from all 13 of its meetings held between January and June 2015.

Why are meeting minutes important?

According to the board policy, because "they provide a record of board actions for use by district staff and the public" -- a means to "help foster public trust that Board actions are occurring in public in accordance with the law."

Not only are board members unable to remember a meeting six months earlier, but the public's only way currently of knowing the actions taken is to review the tapes of the meeting (assuming no technical problems with the recording).

When the Weekly initially inquired last August about the long-delayed minutes, McGee attributed the problem to his executive assistant being overworked but said that with the hiring of an additional assistant "we are catching up and this fall will get caught up and back on schedule." As a result, the Weekly deferred a story and kept an eye on the catch-up progress.

Last week, when the Weekly followed up and asked why nothing had improved, new district communications coordinator Jorge Quintana had a different explanation.

He said the delays where due to the practice of preparing "verbatim notes" rather than the "high-level summary of actions" and "brief summary of the Board's discussion" as stipulated in board policy.

In spite of Quintana's statement, the district has never prepared verbatim minutes. And prior to McGee's arrival in August 2014, minutes were rarely more than a meeting or two behind. In fact, former executive assistant Kathleen Ruegsegger, whose job it was then to prepare minutes, told the Weekly it was "relatively easy" to turn minutes over from one meeting to the next and remembers "being in a panic" if she was more than two meetings behind.

The district's failure to comply with its own policies on minutes is the tip of the iceberg of its opaque approach to public information. No system exists for giving the public copies of correspondence it receives prior to board meetings or the information exchanged between administrators and board members on agenda items. The district's new website, promising to be a vast improvement enabling increased transparency, is just the opposite.

The Weekly's requests for public records are rarely handled in conformance with the law, often with delays in responding of many months.

While board members Ken Dauber and Terry Godfrey have tried to impress upon McGee and their colleagues the need for compliance, trustees Heidi Emberling, Camille Townsend and Melissa Baten Caswell have consistently paid lip service to transparency and the need to abide by district policies and state laws pertaining to public information.

This not what the public expects of a school district that has more financial resources than almost all others in the state and the luxury of a full-time staff person devoted to "communications." When officials can't even get accurate minutes of their meetings finished on time, and offer repeated unfulfilled promises of "catching up," one has to wonder what else is being neglected or ignored.

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Comments

32 people like this
Posted by Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on May 6, 2016 at 8:44 am

When people don't do their jobs in the real world, they are fired. What will happen here?


55 people like this
Posted by Word
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 6, 2016 at 9:35 am

Excellent editorial. This puts its finger on one of the District's critical weaknesses - they simply don't do what they say they will do. They don't follow their own policies; they don't monitor their own actions; in some cases, they don't even follow the law. There's no good excuse, and no one else to blame - this sits on the desks of the Superintendent and the Board. The question is, what will they do about it?


12 people like this
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on May 6, 2016 at 10:30 am

Did the Weekly try to get a comment from "trustees Heidi Emberling, Camille Townsend and Melissa Baten Caswell (who) have consistently paid lip service to transparency and the need to abide by district policies and state laws pertaining to public information"?

I would think this should be taken into account in the upcoming Fall elections.

No excuses, but sometimes putting sunshine on a problem (as Elena Kavdany has done for the Palo Alto Weekly) is what it take to remedy it.


18 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on May 6, 2016 at 10:35 am

Very good editoral, but the Palo Alto Weekly Editoral staff need to look in the mirror and ask themselves about their process for endorsing candidates for school board, especially since the Palo Alto Weekly can sway elections. Melissa, Heidi & Camille have all been endorsed in the past by the editors.


14 people like this
Posted by Fresh Start Needed
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 6, 2016 at 1:41 pm

I'd like to say dismissals are in order, especially with so many conflicts of interest! However, my fear is that the only people who run for school board, most of the time, are those with their own hidden agenda-- or worse, not enough to do and too much time on their hands!

Somehow, the board needs s good purge, but where to get sound replacements? And how to attract them?


9 people like this
Posted by spring clean
a resident of Barron Park
on May 6, 2016 at 3:21 pm

@Fresh,

INDEED! We have board members that PLEDGED themselves with documented actions during the last election to tackle transparency and nearly two years later we have nothing, nada, zilch from those actions!

Re-calls are in order. We don't need potted plants on the board.


9 people like this
Posted by QED
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 6, 2016 at 3:25 pm

"prior to McGee's arrival in August 2014, minutes were rarely more than a meeting or two behind": it's clear this is all about McGee, but why is board enabling him in his obfuscation tactics?


13 people like this
Posted by Kathleen Ruegsegger
a resident of another community
on May 6, 2016 at 5:56 pm

I want to step forward to be clear that I did not leave until October 2015. Minutes approved late prior to that time were my responsibility, not the current admin.  During the time I was behind, I trained a new hire to assist with the workload and then my replacement. Feel free to blame me for those delays.

There was comment following the article indicating Mr. Dauber was not meeting a commitment to release his emails. The reality is if a parent mentions their child or a staff member in that correspondence, the rules protect them. The emails are often sensitive, and I suspect, few people writing to a staff or a board member realizes their emails are subject to possible release for the entire world to read (posted to the district web site). I imagine few know that someone like me was and is reading those emails too.

Redacting is a time consuming task. [Portion removed.] It is important to know that if A sends an email to B and B forwards it to C and D for responses, each version of the email must be read and redacted in the same way. Perhaps a good example of the time this requires to do correctly, one only need to ask the team handling Secretary Clinton's emails.

I would not argue against transparency or this paper's or the community's right to public information. While other districts are posting minutes more regularly, as I did when I first came to PAUSD, are those districts dealing with multiple PRA requests? Unless things have changed since my conversations with some of those districts, they are not. It is important to have all the information when making comparisons.


9 people like this
Posted by Unclean hands
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 6, 2016 at 7:59 pm

[Post removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by Kathleen Ruegsegger
a resident of another community
on May 6, 2016 at 10:03 pm

[Post removed due to deletion of referenced comment.]


9 people like this
Posted by Unclean hands
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 6, 2016 at 11:28 pm

[Post removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by redactions
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 7, 2016 at 12:11 am

Kathleen is correct about the fact that Dauber cannot release his emails unless they are first redacted. The poster who is constantly posting about this has failed to state the pledge correctly which was that he would release all his nonconfidential correspondence. [Portion removed.] It is not really within a board member's ability to make those determinations. Ken has instead tried very hard to get the district to release emails and correspondence in response to the Weekly's PRA requests. There, unfortunately, he has been relatively unsuccessful because neither Max nor the other board members, including Terry Godfrey, really care about fulfilling these requests. [Portion removed.] Recently the Weekly threatened to sue in a serious way and then the docs started flowing again. But they will taper off again once no one is looking and the threat is past. If you want minutes and you want PRAs, you will need to elect people who actually care about the public's right to know. Right now there is one board member in that category.


Like this comment
Posted by I will build a wall
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 7, 2016 at 7:55 am

[Post removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by Ego writing checks
a resident of Mayfield
on May 7, 2016 at 11:05 am

"I pledge myself to make available to the public, via the Web, all of my communications with district staff and other board members that are not legally confidential."

Nothing ambiguous about that. Anyone have the link to all this communication that's been made available to the public via the web?


8 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 7, 2016 at 11:31 am

Like Kathleen Rueggsegger above, there is always a ready argument about why fulfilling records requests is too hard. Remember the district's initial reason for hiring a PR person? In order to fulfill the records requests. Yet somehow, that didn't get better, it got worse after we hired someone.

The law requires districts not only to provide records and to conduct thei business with a certain level of transparency, the law also requires districts to ensure they have procedures in place so that they can honor the laws without making excuses. Otherwise, they could use those excuses as just another form of harrassment and delay when asked to provide information they don't wish to give. (Did anyone notice that the new board rules adopted allow the district to destroy all kinds of records after a certain time period? - note to McGee, don't assume people are asking because they didn't keep all kinds of damning records already. Another note to McGee - if you listen just to one side, you will continue unwittingly to fail or even hurt CHILDREN.)

Providing responses to records requests is a fundamental part of their JOB. Having processes in place to provide those records according to the law is their JOB. In a district this heavily funded, with a full time data officer, technology people, its own PR person, records administrators, numerous assistants, numerous student services administrators/employees, etc, there is simply no excuse. There are ways to use computer programs (heard of those?) to keep track of emails if there is back and forth communication, this is not the only school district in the world and email communication did not begin yesterday. It's only complicated if there is no culture of honesty and transparency. (A culture of unfailing honesty being so much easier because there are no stories to keep straight or personal vendettas or retaliations or indefensible behavior to keep track of and cover over.)

To my knowledge, McGee has even apprised the board that the district needs to have such procedures, but who among them, including McGee, made any effort to do anything but revise board policies to make transparency harder and take away recourse if the parents have problems? I wish the Weekly had analyzed those last board changes.

Kathleen, thank you for your service, you can stop working against transparency in this district now. Just because something seems complicated on first blush does not mean the district shouldn't have long ago developed ways to uncomplicate such situations.

Dr. McGee is a smart guy and I think wants to end his career on a high note. Please, please, please do not drink anymore of that artificially colored sweetened drink in the district office cooler.



9 people like this
Posted by Go away Kathleen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 7, 2016 at 3:35 pm

I agree with Observer. Kathleen Ruegsegger should go away and stop working against transparency. It's obvious that she was part of the problem then, and that it continues to exist now.


Like this comment
Posted by Kathleen Ruegsegger
a resident of another community
on May 7, 2016 at 5:04 pm

Observer and GAK, If you wish to speak to transparency, please step from behind the noms de plume.

In the meantime, please look at the volume of information that has been provided. Web Link This does not include board packets, policies, policy updates, weekly memos, budget books, and a whole host of other documents. People are working in good faith to meet the community's expectations.


5 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 7, 2016 at 10:51 pm

@Kathleen,
I will step from behind the anonymity when speaking openly the day anyone in the district can be counted on to behave as honorably toward me as I do toward them. Good faith gets bandied about mostly among insurance lawyers and our district employees. Based on their bahavior, I do not think our district employees know what it means.

No, the term that comes to mind based on my experience with with district office employees is "moral disengagement" :
"How do otherwise considerate human beings do cruel things and still live in peace with themselves? Drawing on his agentic theory, Dr. Bandura provides a definitive exposition of the psychosocial mechanism by which people selectively disengage their moral self-sanctions from their harmful conduct. They do so by ...(search in amazon to read more)...

Pleasant reading in your retirement.


6 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 8, 2016 at 12:38 am

@Kathleen,
One further thing. When it comes to who owes whom transparency, you do know the difference between a private person with legal rights to privacy, and a government agency with legal requirements for transparency, do you not?


Like this comment
Posted by Kathleen Ruegsegger
a resident of another community
on May 8, 2016 at 7:59 am

Observer, I absolutely understand that difference, which is why proper redaction requires protecting those communicating with board and district staff members.


7 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 8, 2016 at 11:38 am

@Kathleen,
You wrote, "Observer and GAK, If you wish to speak to transparency, please step from behind the noms de plume."

To which I replied:
"I will step from behind the anonymity when speaking openly the day anyone in the district can be counted on to behave as honorably toward me as I do toward them."
and
"When it comes to who owes whom transparency, you do know the difference between a private person with legal rights to privacy, and a government agency with legal requirements for transparency, do you not?"

The point is, no one owes you their name in a forum which is a rare opportunity to speak truth about problems in the district, but you do owe truth to the public in the business of the school district. Since you later spoke of the need for redaction in releasing certain information, perhaps you can understand the need for posters to essentially do the same in their posting to you. [Portion removed.]

I do not understand the diversion in your last post to the topic of proper redaction. Of course I agree that proper redaction is important, it had nothing to do with the above interchange or even why the district is not providing board minutes in a timely way now. But since you brought it up - If the process of redaction to protect anonymity did not also seemingly include as a top priority the need for administrators to keep their "stories" straight and their backsides covered, it would be a lot easier. The process was not invented yesterday, and the district has a surfeit of employees to achieve those tasks, which could be aided by software and better handling of information, which you essentially admit isn't done since you seem to think an ordinary back and forth exchange of email is just so difficult and complex. Seriously? As if email is an utterly new invention and replies are mysteriously too difficult to sort using software? They only become difficult if the district is trying to illegitimately manage and control situations so that the truth does not come out in the record or that the employees don't have to ever answer for misdeeds. [Portion removed.]

It is a fundamental legal duty of all districts to provide records, private and public, when requested, in a timely way. The law requires districts to put processes in place so they can comply with requests under the law. When done - when districts have complied with that legal duty - excuses like "oh, it's just so HARD" (for the dozens of employees who could help whose salaries reach into the tens of millions in total) are simply diversionary and illegitimate. If a district this well staffed and funded cannot meet that fundamental legal duty which so many other districts handle without such difficulty, people should be let go, and others hired who can do their job. Max would do well to focus on getting honest employees who will help him get the dishonest ones out. If anyone is convincing him he could or should do anything less, he will be shooting himself in the foot for no good reason and come to regret it. Which would be a shame, as he otherwise has the potential to create something great here.


4 people like this
Posted by Agree with GAK, Obs
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 8, 2016 at 1:04 pm

[Post removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by Kathleen Ruegsegger
a resident of another community
on May 8, 2016 at 2:12 pm

Observer, my post about your name here has to do with transparency, honesty, being honorable, and owning what you state. Anonymity allows some to be less than truthful or to be unkind. Anyone should be able to post with their name and speak any truth. Maybe I'm overly optimistic.

I stepped forward because the complaints should fall largely to me and to explain some of the pressures on that position. Take it or leave it. I have no agenda.

Agree, I posted because I am named in this editorial and the prior article.


7 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 8, 2016 at 4:33 pm

@Kathleen,
You are not being overly optimistic, you are being dead wrong. Anonimity IS what allows people whose voices would otherwise be silenced, by very real fear of retaliation from those in power, to speak truth. You have nothing to fear from me because I would never do anything worse to you than tell the truth. I, on the other hand, not only have no such assurance of that from you or the administration, I have the cuts from living the retaliation and breathtaking lack of honesty from administrators [portion removed.]

The real issue here is the fact that the failures to provide the board minutes are the tip of the iceberg, and that district admin is going down another bad road by flaunting records laws. McGee seems to be sucked into the same dushonest inner circle vortex that got Skelly. My note to McGee would be not to be tempted to go down that road. When you have something to hide and you think you're getting away with it, there tends to be a whole cascade of guilty flee (or commit retaliation) where no one persueth actions that make things worse.

Being truthful, unfailingly honest, fact finding, and then apologizing when needed - that works far better. [Portion removed.]


6 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 8, 2016 at 11:38 pm

Wait, isn't Kathleen Rucksegger thr one who told people there was no public comments at the retreat when Max McGee was new, including Grace Ma (the county superintendent of education)? And Ma's group went anyway because Ma knew better, but Rucksegger had tried to prevent [portion removed] ?

I hope people will keep in mind the description from Dr. Bandura's book promo, on moral disengagement, how good people do bad things and feel good about themselves: "They do so by sanctifying their harmful behavior as serving worthy causes; they absolve themselves of blame for the harm they cause by displacement and diffusion of responsibility; they minimize or deny the harmful effects of their actions; and they dehumanize those they maltreat and blame them for bringing the suffering on themselves."

Maybe the "village fool" will kindly keep track of how often each of those comes out in subsequent com from the district (or the nastiness that is bound to start when they are back in the office Monday).


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

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