Max McGee came to the Palo Alto Unified School District in 2014 with high hopes of innovating education in the heart of Silicon Valley. But after a short tenure as superintendent, the 66-year-old now plans to retire at the end of the 2017-18 school year.
McGee made the announcement Thursday. He told the Weekly that he and his wife decided at the end of the school year, after reflecting on his 45-year career in education, and wanted to give the Board of Education one-year notice to allow for a national search for a new superintendent.
"I am deeply honored, highly energized, and intensely committed to making my final year in the superintendency the very best one yet for our PAUSD students, our staff, and our community," he said in the release. "I intend that the initiatives we started together will be advanced and that our district will be in terrific shape for the next leader in 2018-19."
McGee's sudden retirement comes after a series of closed-session evaluations conducted by the Board of Education in recent weeks in the wake of community uproar over the district's response to reports of sexual violence at Palo Alto High School.
The news in May that a Paly student had been convicted of an off-campus sexual assault and reported to the Paly administration for an on-campus incident but was allowed to stay at the school, with no Title IX investigation conducted until months after the assaults, sparked community uproar and even calls for McGee's resignation. The school board soon after asked a nationally renowned law firm to investigate whether senior leadership, including McGee, handled the case properly. The board received a verbal update from the law firm last week that informed McGee's annual evaluation.
Since May, the district has received close to 20 new complaints of on- and off-campus sexual assault and sexual harassment, according to a district log.
Board President Terry Godfrey announced in open session Wednesday afternoon that the board unanimously "accepted" his evaluation but did not state if they had given him a satisfactory performance review. McGee's contract requires the board to report in public session if the superintendent's evaluation is satisfactory, but not if it is unsatisfactory.
Godfrey declined to state whether this meant the board had given him a negative review, stating: "We acted in accordance with the contract."
She did, however, confirm that the board did not give McGee a raise. The board is required to vote in an open meeting on any contract extensions or salary increases for the superintendent. The board did neither on Wednesday, and it is unclear whether that happened in prior years. McGee said that he did not ask for a raise this year and did not request contract extensions the last two years. He said his contract expires on June 30, 2018.
In the district announcement, McGee mentioned several initiatives he will press forward on in his last year, including work to close the district's achievement gap, a new district-wide social-emotional curriculum, project-based learning and a student-research program McGee started in 2015. He said he does not intend to "launch any particularly new initiatives."
McGee, a longtime educator, came to Palo Alto from the Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science, a small, brand-new school made up of Chinese and American students. The founding head of the school, he stayed there for a year before taking the job in Palo Alto. Prior to leading the Princeton school, he was president of a prestigious public boarding school, the Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA), in Aurora, Illinois, for six years.
In an interview with the Weekly at IMSA prior to his official hiring in 2014, he said he was drawn to the startup-like nature of creating a school from the ground up at the Princeton school.
"You get to hire all your own people; you get complete control of the operation," he said. "When do you have the chance to make education what you really believe it ought to be?"
His career in education spans close to five decades, from his start as a teacher in the early 1970s to becoming the state superintendent for Illinois. He has worked as a superintendent at various levels for 30 years.
When McGee was hired, board members hailed him as an ambitious people-person who had a demonstrated commitment to educational innovation and supporting struggling students. He told the Weekly in 2014 that he's "a guy that likes to get things done. ... I like to do new things and new challenges. That's just who I am."
On Thursday, Godfrey described McGee -- a marathon runner with a trademark, broad smile -- as enthusiastic and unfailingly energetic.
"It's obvious when you work with him how much he cares about kids ... and that as far as I can tell, he never sleeps. That is really refreshing and invigorating," she told the Weekly. "It makes you want to do more."
Several issues "loom large" for the district in the 2017-18 school year, Godfrey said, including making progress on special-education reform, closing the achievement gap and making sure high school students feel "connected" at school.
The district will hire a search firm this fall to begin the search for a new superintendent, she said.
The board is looking for "somebody who (has) innovation on the mind" and "who feels as passionately about students as we do and as our community does," Godfrey said.
McGee's upcoming retirement is the latest in a wave of leadership changes that will reshape the district in the coming year. At the district office, the associate superintendent, assistant superintendent for human resources, chief student services officer, director of special education, director of student services and equity coordinator all left this school year, with some positions filled and others consolidated. A new, high-level position that McGee created this year, assistant superintendent for strategic initiatives and operations, has yet to be filled.
At the school level, six campuses -- Greendell School, Ohlone Elementary School, Jordan and Terman middle schools, Gunn High School and the Palo Alto Adult School -- will have new principals in the fall.