Editorial: Our right to know

School board members need to disclose their views on McGee's future

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.


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62 people like this
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 15, 2017 at 6:12 am

My impression is that Board Members Dauber & Collins are following their principles, and are willing to apply those principles and take the criticism that comes with being a Board Member.

The other three Board Members are trying to figure out which way the winds are blowing, and won't take a position until they figure out what the "in" crowd at PIE and the PTA thinks. Of the three Board Members, one advertises herself as a finance operations expert, another as a CEO. Well, I sure feel suckered. Based on the past year, I sure wouldn't hire either to run any company.

41 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 15, 2017 at 7:16 am

I used to have a lot of respect for the individuals in the PTA who seemed to spend endless hours doing I knew not what for our school children. Now I am of the opinion it is an "old boys' network" with "jobs for the boys" and hiding the mistakes of their own in self important cronyism. If just one of them would admit their mistakes, admit they are out of their depth, and stop making excuses.

I will not support a PTA candidate for school board in the future.

22 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 15, 2017 at 10:14 am

thanks to Dauber and Collins, they have the courage to stand behind truth and transparency and
taking responsibility for mistakes and deserve our respect.

The other three and the Superintendent are not showing the basic values of truth, ethics and honesty that one would expect, especially to those we entrust with our public education system.

Shameful; the whole situation is shameful

19 people like this
Posted by Natalie Shannon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 15, 2017 at 11:08 am

Teachers -- can you give up requesting the salary raises? Further budget cutting is hurting our kids! It is no secret that the PAUSD is a "great" school district mainly because the parents are propping up their kids by home-tutoring or buying tutoring services outside of schools. Many of the PAUSD teachers are simply not doing a satisfactory job in teaching.

13 people like this
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 15, 2017 at 12:41 pm

Maybe its time for a new Board also....

30 people like this
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 15, 2017 at 1:24 pm

This $6 million error could have allowed the District to about 40 more teachers, and dramatically reduce high school classroom sizes. And $6 million is the ENTIRETY of what PiE (parents in education) raise each year for the District.

This is really awful folks.

I'm surprised the teacher's union is sticking to their guns on the letter of the contract, on what was obviously an unintentional error, instead of showing some flexibility.

3 people like this
Posted by um
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 15, 2017 at 1:48 pm

Agree with Barron Park dad.

I am not sure why this editorial set forth a blueprint for Max to sue the district though. Not sure that made the most sense. You're not a lawyer and more important you're not Max's lawyer so I am not sure why you are laying a foundation to go after the two board members who are showing courage.

If a lawsuit were to be filed based on the mild comments of these two board members it would be frivolous and subject to anti-SLAPP. But why create that problem.

4 people like this
Posted by public's interest
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 15, 2017 at 3:02 pm

The "$6 million blunder" story is important but small potatoes compared to the public's interest in knowing the who/what/where/when/how shared in the Cozen report about student safety on Paly's campus.

Collins and Daubers' statements calling out Dr. McGee were issued right after they read the Cozen report which suggests that staff members evaluated in that closed session made quite serious "blunders" handling the sexual assault allegations at Paly too.

2 people like this
Posted by comparing contracts
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 15, 2017 at 3:39 pm

Superintendent Skelly's employment contract:

"In the event the Employee receives a less than satisfactory evaluation for either the 2011-2012 and/or the 2012-2013 school year, this Agreement will not be renewed."

"If the Employee performs in an unsatisfactory manner ...the Board may give written notice to the Employee that unless his performance improves within six (6) months, he will be terminated. The written notice
shall contain a detailed statement of the unsatisfactory performance."
Web Link

Superintendent McGee's:

"Any and all adjustment pursuant to the Superintendent’s salary schedule...shall be contingent upon an annual evaluation which indicates overall satisfactory performance...within the sole and absolute discretion of the Board of Education."

"if the Board determines that the Superintendent’s evaluation is "unsatisfactory,” the Superintendent’s salary and contract term
shall remain unchanged"

"Board concerns, criticisms and dissatisfaction with the Superintendent’s performance shall therefore be addressed through closed session discussions or via the evaluation process." Web Link

15 people like this
Posted by Eileen 1
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 15, 2017 at 4:14 pm

Eileen 1 is a registered user.

It is worth noting that Collins, Dauber and DiBrienza, and Godfrey were not on the Board when McGee's contract was negotiated. He was selected by the previous Board, of which Baton Caswell was a member, and they are the ones who agreed to his contract.

McGee is clearly part of the continuum of Superintendents that Board Members Melissa Baton Caswell, Heidi Emberling, Dana Tom, Barb Mitchell, and Camille Townsend brought to our district. I agree with the previous posters who have noted that Godfrey has been a disappointment. Based on her campaign and the way she spoke during the campaign debates, I had the distinct impression that she believed that leaders should be both competent and honest. Why is she willing to support a Superintendent who has been dishonest in how he revealed this blunder? Why is she willing to support a leader who did not follow the Board's directive to renegotiate the third year of the teacher contract?

Why are Baton Caswell and DiBrienza willing to give him a pass? What does a Superintendent have to do to get fired in this district?

9 people like this
Posted by Absurd Legal Advice
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 15, 2017 at 6:56 pm

@comparing contracts - from McGee's contract - "if the Board determines that the Superintendent’s evaluation is "unsatisfactory,” the Superintendent’s salary and contract term shall remain unchanged"

Which means he cannot be fired for poor performance. An absurd clause with bad advice to the Board of Ed from their attorney. If employment is 'less than satisfactory,' the employee must either be let go or given a short period to improve their performance, Superintendent or not. Saying 'the contract term shall remain unchanged' no matter what performance problems there are is absurd. It is a guarantee the Board will never fire the employee, no matter what the employee does.

The Superintendent must have known he was negotiating this clause into his own contract. This also casts doubt on him saying he didn't know the terms of other contracts, now, at the time they were negotiated, or when notification dates were missed.

2 people like this
Posted by screed
a resident of Stanford
on Sep 21, 2017 at 1:36 pm

Good luck in finding a replacement for McGee. Who would want to be the Superintendent of the Palo Alto School District anyway? A thankless job. Say, how many superintendents, school principals, etc. have we gone through in the last few years?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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