One by one, all five school board members and Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Max McGee on Tuesday night apologized for their lack of oversight, which led to a contractual error that will cost the district $6 million in unbudgeted pay increases for unionized employees.
Several trustees said that there will likely be no raises for teachers and classified union members in the next few years as the district copes with an ongoing deficit. That deficit was exacerbated by senior district leadership's failure to reopen negotiations with the two unions by a required deadline this spring.
After discovering the missed deadline last month, the district agreed to pay union members a 3 percent raise -- totaling $4.5 million -- that board members assumed had been eliminated from their contracts in the wake of a budget shortfall discovered in 2016. The district will very likely also pay out an additional 1 percent bonus -- or $1.5 million -- on top of a planned 1 percent bonus at the end of the school year.
Despite an intention from McGee to not make any budget cuts that will directly affect "teaching and learning," the impact of what all referred to at the school board meeting as a "mistake" will be unavoidably felt by students in the classroom, several board members said.
"The buck does stop with the board," said board member Jennifer DiBrienza. "I think there are a lot of places that the buck stops along the way, but our job is oversight of the district, and this is something that's going to have a big impact."
"We have to do better as board members," board member Todd Collins told his colleagues.
To the community, he said: "I think in this particular case, we have failed you."
McGee, for his part, apologized for not paying closer attention to the contract requirement and to the negotiations process. He had initially described the missed deadline in public statements and interviews with the Weekly as a "misinterpretation" and "misunderstanding."
"I will take responsibility for not providing the oversight to go through that contract line by line by line, which I did and I missed it, as did others, but the buck stops with me," McGee said.
"When you delegate something, it's important to follow through on the delegation (and) make sure folks are doing their job," he added. "That's part of being the leader, the chief executive officer."
Considering four new budget scenarios presented by staff, board members said the district should adopt forecasts that don't include raises for teachers and staff in the short term, noting that compensation is subject to negotiation this fall.
"It seems to me when I look at the scenarios that a scenario where we allocate a raise for the next year isn't realistic after what's happened," board member Melissa Baten Caswell said. "Honestly, it's probably not realistic to look out for two years and put another raise in."
In public comments, community members expressed outrage over the contract mistake, calling for accountability and transparency to help restore trust that has been lost.
"We see misrepresentations of what happened, hiding errors and avoiding personal responsibility," said Bob Smith. "It's something that the district has had an overall problem with for some years."
He said the district's mistakes are more often "simple" than high-level vision failures, urging the board to add operations improvement to its set of district-wide goals.
Several parents urged the board to consider replacing McGee, who is set to retire at the end of the school year. The board conducted an evaluation of McGee during closed session but took no reportable action.
"Yes, a snafu was made and can we all remember that snafu stands for 'situation normal: all f----- up'?" said Andrea Wolf. "I think that really speaks to the administration of the school district. This is normal. This is what has been happening year in and year out. We need a change to the leadership at the top."
One Palo Alto High School mother told the board that "money matters," as does accountability.
"Our community's trust has been repeatedly violated with one serious mistake after another," she said. "Without trust, can there be stability?"
Some district leaders argued, however, that terminating the superintendent early in the school year would rock a boat already navigating unsteady waters.
The Palo Alto Management Association (PAMA), which represents 75 district administrators, principals and psychologists, surveyed its members over the weekend on whether to retain McGee. Of the 41 members who responded, 40 support McGee staying through the end of the year.
Those who responded to the survey left comments that "reflect a desire for Max to continue to preserve continuity, consistency, avoid disruption and reduce distraction," Duveneck Elementary School Principal Chris Grierson said in the PAMA statement. "Other reasons include that his staying would minimize extra costs in compensation for an interim superintendent, and most importantly, maintain stability in our organization during a time when there is already frequent turnover in several leadership roles."
Board members agreed that the missed deadline is another indication of the need for more regular "operational reviews" that keep the district on top of potential risks, financial and otherwise.
"We don't want to end up in a situation again with egg on our face," board President Terry Godfrey said.
Staff have proposed using $4.47 million in additional property tax revenue to cover this year's raises, and tapping a fund set aside for opening new schools to pay for the one-time bonus. (The reserves fund was created when the district was considering opening new campuses, which the board has since decided against doing in the near term.)
Staff also proposed using the new-school fund, rather than the general fund, to pay for a new district-level, full-time Title IX coordinator position for the next three years.
Some members objected to using the reserves fund in this way.
"The new school fund is not our 'Oops, we made a mistake; this is how we'll pay for it' fund," Collins said. He made a failed motion to move the cost of the bonus and Title IX position into the general fund.
The board ultimately voted 3-2, however, with Godfrey and Baten Caswell dissenting, to move the Title IX coordinator, a likely reoccurring cost to support required reform of the district's handling of sexual misconduct, into the district's operating budget.
Collins also suggested that the district implement a hiring freeze to address a multi-million dollar deficit this year. McGee responded that the district's new assistant superintendent for human resources, Karen Hendricks, is in the midst of reviewing hiring processes but that "it would be overstating to say it's a hiring freeze."
McGee said that, for example, while he defended "quite strongly" during budget cuts last year the district's communications coordinator position, he is now not intending to replace Jorge Quintana, who quit unexpectedly just before the school year started.
Collins also made a failed motion, supported only by Dauber, to suspend a $400 stipend trustees receive for their board work. Collins and Godfrey said they already forego the stipend. The other three trustees were concerned that suspending it could negatively impact community members' ability to run for the board.
Other savings suggestions came from Godfrey, who asked staff to reconsider eliminating a teacher work day that costs the district almost $600,000 per year.
Staff will bring budget revisions to the board's Sept. 26 meeting for approval.