Representing a marked change in stance from the 2014 Palo Alto school board, this year’s board appears determined to work more collaboratively with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, with a majority of members Tuesday night stating support for a resolution agreement in two open investigations as well as a repeal of a past resolution criticizing the agency.
While a board majority — Vice President Ken Dauber and the board's two newly elected trustees, Todd Collins and Jennifer DiBrienza — sought to distance the district from a more combative past with the federal agency, member Melissa Baten Caswell continued to defend that past, seeking assurances about protecting the district from liability in the future. President Terry Godfrey was absent for this portion of the meeting on Tuesday.
Dauber, Collins and DiBrienza said Tuesday they will vote to repeal the 2014 resolution challenging the Office for Civil Rights, which then-board members, including Baten Caswell, unanimously adopted, calling the agency "purposefully confrontational."
The resolution also committed the district to lobbying local and national elected officials for support in their grievances about the civil-rights agency's investigative practices in Palo Alto. The three current board members said they were eager to leave the resolution in the past.
"This repeal of a resolution is not, for me, a rebuke to the people who supported it ... but the board has changed, times have changed and we are definitely changing our approach," Collins said. "I hope we can put that to bed and move on."
Dauber said he didn't believe any of the criticisms leveled against the Office for Civil Rights were based in fact and were instead the "product of a defensive posture and a program of resistance that was not in the best interest of our students."
The resolution also accused one of the complainants against the school district of "document tampering," an allegation that was determined to be false by Office for Civil Rights attorneys.
Said Dauber: "The point of the motion to repeal is ... to put the district on record as not standing behind the content of that 2014 resolution."
Baten Caswell did not explicitly say whether she would support or oppose the repeal, but instead proposed a new resolution that calls the Office for Civil Rights' guidance "invaluable" and commits the district to a collaborative relationship with the agency moving forward. Dauber said he would support this resolution.
Baten Caswell said she preferred to avoid "pointing fingers at each other" by revisiting the past and to "look forward rather than look backwards."
"I believe that we thought we were doing the right thing," she said. "You could argue whether it was good or whether it was bad but the intent was not nasty. ... The intent was to protect our kids."
Several parents and community members also spoke to the repeal.
Former Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt called the resolution a "stain" from the former administration and board's "failed adversarial approach" with the civil-rights agency.
"When this resolution was passed, the City Council was appalled and ashamed by what many believed was worst single act by the district in decades, which was fundamentally contrary to our community values," he said.
Parent Stephen Schmidt called the resolution "an historical artifact that this more enlightened board should state no longer represents, if it ever did, the will of the greater Palo Alto community."
Others worried about the potential wider ramifications the critical resolution could have in today's political climate, saying agencies like the Office for Civil Rights are coming under increased attack.
"We are a high profile community. ... With that comes the burden to act responsibly, appropriately and on behalf of all members in our community," said Christina Schmidt, a parent and special-education advocate. "I fear that the 2014 resolution could be used as a footnote at the end of the wrong argument."
One community member, however, said he was proud of the school district the day the board passed the resolution.
"In 2014, Palo Alto stood up and bravely stated the facts," Ze'ev Wurman said, to an agency he described as "high-handed and arrogant."
"Do not, please, change the facts and the past and the history," he said, suggesting the board instead adopt its own resolution.
Superintendent Max McGee supported either rescinding the resolution or drafting a new one.
"I hope if we do pass a resolution that others around the country would take note of that -- because they certainly took note of the old one -- and to say, 'It is a new time here.' We're really setting a new, a better standard for others in respecting the civil rights of all," McGee said.
Collins, Dauber and DiBrienza also indicated they were ready to support a resolution agreement with the Office for Civil Rights that lays out corrective actions the district will be obligated to take to address legal violations the agency found in two sexual harassment and sexual violence investigations at the district's high schools.
McGee and two attorneys from the the district's law firm also recommended the board adopt at its next meeting this version of the resolution agreement, which they have been revising and clarifying with Office for Civil Rights staff since December.
In contrast, Baten Caswell requested to make a series of changes to the agreement to clarify what she described as ambiguous, open-ended language that could leave the district open to future liability. Her motion to direct staff to ask the Office for Civil Rights to add those clarifications failed in a 1-3 vote.
She raised concerns, for example, about a section on inappropriate relationships between employees and students, probing the two attorneys on whether the district would be obligated to, as a hypothetical example, investigate a report that a former student had married a current teacher years after the student had graduated.
She also worried about the district's obligation to investigate "third parties" accused of sexual harassment or violence against students and whether agreeing to compensate the Gunn High School complainant for private counseling expenses stemming from sexual harassment and dating violence (which was the basis for the Office for Civil Rights case) will set a "precedent" for future remedial actions expected from the district.
Her apprehension stems from a difficult past with the federal agency, Baten Caswell said, including "incredibly onerous" terms of a previous resolution agreement that the district decided not to enter into and a "surprising" letter of findings in another case.
"Our experience has shown we need to be aware of what terms we're signing up for," she said.
The two attorneys, Elizabeth Estes and Eve P. Fichtner of law firm Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, said they had already made all revisions they believed were necessary to protect the district. Any further, specific concerns, they suggested, could be worked out during the revision of board policies, which will be required under the resolution agreement.
In response to a question from Collins, the lawyers said that in their experience, the challenges with resolution agreements have come not from specific language but from school districts' implementation.
Throughout the conversation, Estes and Fichtner reminded the board of its obligations to investigate allegations of sexual harassment and sexual violence under federal anti-discrimination law Title IX.
"In doing so," Estes said in response to a question from Baten Caswell, "to the extent there is a finding that that occurred and there is remedial action that should be taken, then the district ... would determine what that remedial action is."
The presidents of the district's teachers and classified unions also told the board they supported the intent of the agreement — to protect and support students under Title IX — but wanted to ensure protections are also in place for employees' due-process rights. Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educators Association (PAEA), said she is meeting with a California Teachers Association attorney to "to make sure no civil liberties or anything are being infringed upon" in the proposed agreement.
The board is set to vote on the repeal of the 2014 resolution, Baten Caswell's proposed new resolution and the draft resolution agreement at its next meeting on Feb. 28.
In other business Tuesday, the board also narrowly gave the green light for elementary teachers to pilot this year a third mathematics curriculum, Investigations, along with two previously approved textbooks. While teachers have supported the curriculum, some board members have expressed concern that it only partially meets academic standards in certain grades, as a third-party organization determined. Dauber, DiBrienza and Godfrey voted in support of the pilot, while Baten Caswell and Collins opposed it.