After spending several hours discussing Superintendent Max McGee's performance in four separate closed-session meetings this week, including a marathon session that ended at 11:30 p.m. Wednesday night with no board action, two Palo Alto school board members are now publicly calling for his removal.
In separate statements provided to the Palo Alto Weekly, school board Vice President Ken Dauber and member Todd Collins said Thursday morning that they do not support retaining McGee through the end of his contract. McGee announced this summer that he plans to retire at the end of the school year.
"I believe our students would be best served by a change in leadership as soon as possible," Dauber said, adding he has communicated this to McGee.
"Given the controversy and mistakes that have hindered the district's work the last two years, I think it is time that the district part ways with Dr. McGee and move forward with an interim superintendent, while launching its planned search for a long-term leader," Collins said.
To do so is "in the best interests of students and the community," Collins added, and "will hopefully stop the cycle of distraction and self-inflicted damage and help maintain the community's confidence in the district and the board's ability to oversee its work."
Dauber and Collins declined to comment further.
McGee's employment contract with the district contains a provision stating that board "concerns, criticisms and dissatisfaction with the superintendent's performance shall be addressed through closed session deliberations or via the evaluation process ... to avoid damage to the Board's and the Superintendent's image and credibility." It is not clear whether that contract clause is preventing or limiting the public comments of individual board members.
With board President Terry Godfrey announcing late Wednesday night, as the law requires when closed sessions adjourn, that there was "no reportable action," it suggests that Godfrey, Jennifer DiBrienza and Melissa Baten Caswell are either opposed to terminating McGee or have not yet made up their minds. The board has scheduled another closed-session evaluation for Wednesday, Sept. 20.
Godfrey said Wednesday afternoon that she doesn't "have a strong feeling either way" on terminating McGee and is "not convinced one way or the other yet."
"I know I need to work through all the scenarios and figure out what's the best way to keep the momentum and right the ship," she said in an interview.
In a Thursday email to the Weekly, Godfrey wrote: "There are times when punitive action is faster and more satisfying than corrective action. When dealing with employee evaluation situations in my professional life and in my work here I am committed to treating our employees with respect and careful consideration before we decide on action."
She said that "just swapping out the superintendent" doesn't address the many issues and processes "in desperate need of work" in the district.
"We have added some very strong staff, and we need to make these organizational upgrades so that we move away from a model that's overdependent on a superintendent."
Godfrey said she anticipates that at the end of next week's closed-session evaluation "we will have a way forward."
DiBrienza told the Weekly Thursday that she doesn't "find it appropriate to speak to this issue publicly before we finish the confidential work and make any decisions as a board." She said she will make a public statement after next week's closed-session meeting.
Baten Caswell also said she cannot comment on closed-session employee evaluation discussions.
"However, I will say that my top priorities are (1) doing what is best for our students, (2) making sure we can recruit and hire the best possible next superintendent, and (3) ensuring that the organization is not distracted from focusing on instituting better operational controls and making progress against our goals," she wrote in an email Thursday afternoon.
Dauber's and Collins' statements come on the heels of the district's discovery that senior leadership failed to reopen negotiations with its employee unions, costing the district $6 million in unbudgeted raises and bonuses. Community members have faulted McGee's lack of proper management for contributing to the mistake, with some also calling for his removal at Tuesday's school board meeting. McGee himself acknowledged and apologized at the meeting for his lack of oversight.
The Palo Alto Management Association (PAMA), which represents 75 district administrators, principals and school psychologists, defended McGee in a statement read at Tuesday's board meeting. The group urged the board to retain him to "preserve continuity, consistency, avoid disruption and reduce distraction." Forty out of 41 members who responded to a survey the group conducted over the weekend said they "fully support" McGee staying on as superintendent through the end of the school year, according to PAMA representative Chris Grierson, principal of Duveneck Elementary School.
The public is also awaiting a law firm's report on how McGee and other school leaders handled a report of student sexual assault at Palo Alto High School last year, a case that has sparked uproar in the community over the administration's apparent failures to comply with federal anti-discrimination law Title IX. The report is set to be released at a public meeting now scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 21, from 4-6 p.m.
Two lawyers from the firm, Cozen O'Connor, presented their report to the board in closed session on Wednesday afternoon. The board met with the lawyers from 4 to 6 p.m. and then held an open meeting on board governance before going back into closed session with the lawyers at 8 p.m.
The board also held two closed sessions before and after Tuesday's school board meeting to discuss McGee's performance.
The board took no reportable action in either closed session, Godfrey said.
After a series of closed-door evaluations of McGee that the board held this spring in the wake of the sexual-assault allegations, Godfrey announced in open session that the board had unanimously "accepted" McGee's annual evaluation but did not state if it 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 clarify whether this meant the board had given him a negative review, stating, "We acted in accordance with the contract."