Max McGee's years as superintendent of the Palo Alto school district have been marked by some advances in innovation and equity but also by the same kinds of miscommunication as well as failures to uphold federal civil-rights law Title IX that plagued his predecessor, Kevin Skelly.
McGee announced on Thursday that he plans to retire in 2018, bringing an end to a 45-year career in education.
His retirement comes after a series of closed-session performance evaluations of McGee 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.
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. Godfrey echoed that on Thursday, describing his energy and enthusiasm as "refreshing and invigorating."
Top issues for the district to tackle in the 2017-18 school year, Godfrey said, include making progress on special-education reform, closing the achievement gap for minority and disadvantaged students and helping high school students to feel more connected at school.
Board Vice President Ken Dauber said the district has also yet to make the progress he would like to see on legal compliance, particularly protecting students from discrimination, and issues with a tangible impact on students like homework load and test and project stacking.
Godfrey and Dauber said the board is looking for a new superintendent with experience in and commitment to innovation, student well-being and management.
Dauber said he has appreciated the district's "renewed focus" on student mental health and the achievement gap during McGee's tenure. He hopes the next superintendent will have strong management skills -- a person who can "effectively produce accountability and drive change," he said -- as well as a strong understanding of emerging shifts in education.
McGee hit the ground with purpose when he arrived in Palo Alto. After less than two months on the job, he announced during a live call-in show that he would launch a Minority Achievement Talent Development (MATD) committee to tackle the district's persistent achievement gap. He later oversaw the implementation of several significant recommendations from the group, including the launch of full-day kindergarten at all elementary schools this fall and the hiring of the district's first-ever equity coordinator, who helped the district draft but did not finish a comprehensive action plan for how to better support low-income and minority students. (The coordinator left the district after a year, and McGee plans to replace her position with a new "coordinator of academic supports.")
McGee said Thursday that he felt he laid the groundwork for continued progress on narrowing the achievement gap, a sentiment echoed by at least one district employee who works closely with low-income and minority families.
Judy Argumedo, who oversees the district's Voluntary Transfer Program and English language learner program and served on the minority-achievement committee, said in an interview that McGee's leadership sparked tangible shifts she hadn't seen before in her decade of working in the district. More low-income and minority parents, many Spanish-speaking and from East Palo Alto, came to school board meetings this year to speak out, she said. District staff also received specific training on unconscious bias and read equity case studies as part of their training.
"It's been a real focus," Argumedo said Thursday. "I hope our next superintendent has the same focus and passion for equity."
McGee, who pledged openness and transparency before his hiring, is a frequent presence at school campuses. Argumedo described him as unusually "available" for a superintendent, giving his cell phone number out to families, and said she often runs into him at the schools. He also provided updates in monthly videos produced by students and started hosting online webinars about pressing issues to increase access and transparency beyond in-person school board meetings.
One year in as superintendent, McGee launched a passion project -- the growing Advanced Authentic Research (AAR) program, which connects high school students with mentors to conduct in-depth research projects on everything from computational chemistry to psychological and sociological inquiries. (He served as a mentor himself for groups of students the last two years.) The program was recently honored by the Stanford University Peace Innovation Lab, which has created a scholarship in his name to provide funding to AAR graduates who go on to pursue their research as college students.
But at times, McGee's ambition and eagerness to make change happen was sharply at odds with the community and school board.
In 2015, he failed to disclose to the board the progression of a serious proposal to open an alternative secondary school in the district, which got as far as an application for funding through a national education initiative launched by Laurene Powell Jobs. Described by proponents as a "radically innovative school," the new concept was to be the answer to a growing call in the community for an education distinctly different from what the current middle and high schools offer. But McGee's lack of communication beyond a small group of advocates sparked dissent and ultimately led to the fizzling of the possibility of any new school.
McGee said he was "disappointed" about this outcome but is heartened that the push to innovate has persisted. He later convened a group of teachers committed to bringing innovation to the district; they recently proposed opening a school-within-a-school pilot program at Paly.
McGee also did not promptly inform the board about a private donor's offer to fund a multimillion dollar remodel of Addison Elementary School. The project first came before the board almost a year into the planning process at the campus.
In 2015, students skewered him for making a hasty decision, announced during spring break and without their input, to eliminate academic classes during the high schools' early morning "zero" period.
On some key initiatives, progress has stalled under McGee's leadership. Perhaps most significantly, a promised review of the district's special-education department conducted last year came with esteemed pedigree -- led by a Harvard University professor and longtime special-education advocate -- but fell short in substance. At a retreat last week, several school board members decried the district's continued failure to make much-needed progress on special-education reform, from improving delivery of services to building trust with families.
McGee said he would have liked to have made "more tangible progress" on special education, which he said was hindered by the district's culture of school-based autonomy.
"Some things are too autonomous; some things are too centralized," he said. "The special-education system here has been a success for some students, certainly, but it needs to be successful for all students."
McGee's tenure has also been shaped by unexpected controversies that have bubbled up from the community and often consumed district staff's and the board's attention for months at a time, from a grassroots proposal to rename two middle schools named after eugenicists and a divisive debate over how the high schools should report weighted grade point averages. Much of this year was devoted to making difficult budget cuts after the district discovered staff had miscalculated property-tax revenue projections, resulting in a multimillion-dollar shortfall.
"This is not an easy place to work, but whether it was the budget crisis, weighted grading (or) the most recent issues with sexual harassment and sexual assault, I hope I've exemplified what leadership is about -- making good decisions, standing tall, admitting mistakes (and) finding ways to do things better," McGee said.
After several current and former Palo Alto Unified students died by suicide in 2014, 2015 and 2016, he became the leader of a school district under a national microscope for its high-pressure culture of achievement. Student mental health and well-being have become a central focus of the district over the last several years, with increased funding from the school board for counseling services, the opening of wellness centers at both high schools, a more forgiving bell schedule and new teacher-advisory program at Gunn High School and numerous student initiatives to combat the stigma around mental illness.
"I'm very proud, though it was born out of tragedy, of what we've done for social-emotional wellness and balancing academics with social-emotional health," McGee said.
This spring's outrage over the district's handling of sexual violence at Paly came on the heels of a yearslong federal investigation that found the district repeatedly violated Title IX in multiple cases of sexual violence, harassment and misconduct at both high schools. Just months before news about the Paly case broke, the school board entered into a resolution agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights that commits the district to a series of corrective actions and a monitoring period, among other requirements.
McGee said a forthcoming public report from the law firm investigating the district's handling of the Paly sexual assault reports, expected in July, will provide "indicators of how we need to improve systems and processes."