A round of public apologies Tuesday night by Palo Alto school board members and Superintendent Max McGee for a blunder that will cost the district approximately $6 million fell far short of what the community deserves from the people it has entrusted with the oversight of our school system.
It has been two weeks since the revelation that the district forgot to notify its unions by a March 15 deadline that it wished to re-negotiate the third year of its contracts, as allowed when last year's property-tax revenue fell far short of the projection. Because of this failure, and the unions' decision to file a formal grievance to force the payment of a 3 percent pay raise, the district will need to begin a new round of multimillion dollar budget cuts for the second year in a row.
It's just the latest of repeated management failures by McGee's administration that have led the community through one controversy after another, including failures to conduct proper investigations of allegations of sexual assaults and harassment at Palo Alto High School, which has led to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year being spent in legal fees, new staffing and training to correct the problems.
The board and McGee got an earful of well-deserved criticism from the public at its meeting Tuesday, with most speakers demanding that McGee be held accountable for this and other missteps and be fired. Only the Palo Alto Management Association, the bargaining unit made up of principals, district administrators, deans, counselors and psychologists, spoke in support of letting McGee finish out the school year.
Closed sessions to discuss McGee's performance preceded and followed the regular board meeting Tuesday night, and another two closed sessions totaling almost five hours were held Wednesday.
Aside from apologizing to the community for its failure to monitor the actions of McGee and other top administrators more closely, the school board has not issued any statement about McGee or his future. Board President Terry Godfrey has only announced, after both closed sessions, that the board had taken no reportable actions, signaling that a majority of the board does not support, at least yet, asking for McGee's immediate resignation.
On Thursday, board members Ken Dauber and Todd Collins released separate restrained statements saying that a leadership change was needed in the best interest of the district. Godfrey and board members Jennifer DiBrienza and Melissa Baten Caswell have repeatedly declined to discuss their views, but one can infer that the board is split 3-2 on terminating McGee.
Ironically, a poorly drafted non-disparagement provision in McGee's employment contract may be working directly against the transparency to which the public is entitled. It states that "to avoid damage to the Board's and the Superintendent's image and credibility ... board concerns, criticisms and dissatisfactions with the Superintendent's performance shall therefore be addressed through closed session discussions or via the evaluation process."
This overly broad clause, which has no place in a public employee contract, could be interpreted to mean that neither the board nor individual trustees may inform the public of their views on McGee's performance or the appropriateness of his remaining on as superintendent.
This calls for both care and courage by board members, not silence. As the statements released by Dauber and Collins show, it is possible to inform the public of one's position without directly airing criticisms of McGee's conduct.
It is also not acceptable for board members to refuse to state their views or votes on the basis that discussions on McGee's future occurred in closed-session meetings.
The Brown Act, California's open-meeting law, and the California Constitution make clear that the public's business should be conducted in public. The law does allow (not require) governing bodies of local agencies to meet in closed session for certain limited purposes, including to discuss the employment and performance of their chief executive. It does not constrain the school board from agreeing to inform the public what was discussed in closed session, what votes were held and the outcome of those votes.
The public has every right to know the position of each trustee on McGee and his lieutenants' costly mistakes and, perhaps even more important, on how McGee should be held accountable for his intentional effort to deceive the public about the missed March 15 deadline.
Nothing should stand in the way of individual board members informing the public of their individual position or vote, as long as they don't disclose what others said in the closed session.
The time window for the school board to do the right thing is closing, and if a board majority doesn't believe McGee's performance warrants his dismissal, they have a duty to explain themselves to the people who elected them and to publicly announce their vote. It is not enough to apologize.