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.