After weeks of upheaval over senior school leadership's handling of two controversies -- a missed deadline that will cost the district up to $6 million in unbudgeted union pay increases and a student sexual-assault case at Palo Alto High School -- Superintendent Max McGee submitted his resignation Tuesday rather than retiring at the end of the school year as he had announced in June.
School board President Terry Godfrey announced McGee's resignation at the start of Tuesday's school board meeting after coming out of closed session. The board unanimously accepted his resignation, effective Friday, and approved his separation agreement, she said.
Sitting next to McGee at the dais, Godfrey read his letter of resignation to the board, on his behalf.
"For a host of personal reasons, I am offering my resignation effective at the close of business on Friday, Sept. 29," he wrote. "Blessed with a supportive community, a dedicated Board of Education, an extraordinarily capable and caring staff, and above all a student body that exemplifies excellence in character and achievement, I leave Palo Alto knowing the district will continue to thrive and I stand ready to provide whatever support the board, interim superintendent and/or next superintendent may need during this transition of leadership."
In his letter, McGee told the board that he's "confident" they will choose his successor "wisely and well knowing that our students, staff and community need and deserve the very best leader who will sustain all that is good, heal what is hurt and strengthen this outstanding school district."
Godfrey said the district will immediately work to appoint interim leadership. Two hours later, the district noticed a special closed-session meeting for Wednesday evening to discuss the appointment of an interim superintendent.
"We thank Dr. McGee for his years of hard work and for his many contributions to our district," Godfrey said. "His optimism, vision and vibrancy along with the innovative programs and practices he brought to our district will be a lasting legacy."
McGee did not speak himself until the very end of the meeting in the open "board operations" section. He lauded the teachers, staff and administrators in Palo Alto as "second to none," exemplified by principals he saw visiting classrooms and at community meetings this week and teachers in action at Palo Alto High School.
"We're going to have some problems here, but I have no doubt this staff, this board, this community can solve them," he said. "I'm really glad I chose this for my last superintendency and I mean that."
In spite of a Brown Act legal requirement that closed session actions be announced as soon as the meeting is reconvened in public, Godfrey said a copy of the separation agreement would not be available until Wednesday morning. She also did not state the terms of the agreement and whether McGee will receive any payment.
On Wednesday morning, she told the Weekly that the district had agreed to give McGee six month's pay (approximately $150,000) and health benefits through Dec. 31. McGee will also turn back to the district the title of a home he bought in August, 2015 with an interest-free $1.5 million loan the district provided, she said.
The district posted the agreement online later Wednesday morning.
After the announcement on Tuesday night, the board unanimously waived its two-meeting rule and authorized Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Karen Hendricks to issue a request for proposals (RFP) to find a consulting firm to lead the replacement search process.
Several parents and staff members thanked McGee for making tangible progress in the district over the last three years — particularly his support for minority and low-income students — and expressed regret for his sudden departure.
"I feel that in my years in the district here … parents who have a focus on equity and fairness for all children just have not had a better friend in the district than Dr. McGee," said parent Kim Bomar, co-chair for Parent Advocates for Student Success, which supports minority and low-income students and families. "We're losing a huge advocate and resource."
Parent Mary Vincent said in her many years of advocating for special-education families in Palo Alto, McGee was the first superintendent "who wanted to hear our families' stories" and instilled in his staff to do the same.
Vincent and others also credited McGee for overseeing changes such as a new block schedule at Gunn High School, improved counseling services, a renewed focus on mental health and high-quality new hires at the district.
Gunn senior Advait Arun, the school's student board representative, told McGee he "made a real impact on us and our schools" and said he hopes "the next superintendent will be as visionary and as qualified."
Meb Steiner, president of the classified employees' union, told the board that "to say that I am disappointed that Dr. McGee has had to tender his resignation would be an understatement."
She thanked him for his open, collaborative leadership style and for a "very gracious resignation letter, both in tone and word — a letter urging healing and the confidence of a bright future for our district."
She urged the same, describing the recent upheaval as feeling "as if I've fallen down the rabbit hole and landed in the Queen of Heart's garden.
"There are calls for 'off with this head' and 'off with that head' ... this is incredibly disheartening and demoralizing and the worst kind of role model for our kids," Steiner said. "This is not us. This is not the district I have known; this is not the district I want us to be. It does not help us to move forward or to address our problems together."
Teri Baldwin, president of the teachers union, told the board through tears that she hopes they "have a plan to move on in a positive way because it hasn't been positive here."
Parents also asked the board for a concrete transition plan.
"My request is to make sure (in) the next eight, nine months that we don't see a rudderless ship," Vincent said.
The school board will meet in closed session on Wednesday from 9-10 p.m. at the district office to discuss the appointment of an interim superintendent.
McGee's resignation comes after a rocky start to the new school year and a series of closed-session evaluations conducted by the Board of Education, most recently related to the district’s failure to reopen contract negotiations with its unions and missteps in responding to a female Paly freshman who said she was sexually assaulted in a campus bathroom last year.
In the midst of those closed-session meetings, two school board members -- Vice President Ken Dauber and Trustee Todd Collins -- publicly called for McGee's removal, with Dauber stating that "our students would be best served by a change in leadership as soon as possible."
Tuesday's announcement indicates that perhaps one or more other board members since decided to support McGee's early termination, leading to his decision to instead resign. None of the other three board members have yet to make public statements on their positions.
In recent weeks, some parents have also called for new leadership at the top while some administrators who belong to the Palo Alto Management Association, which represents 75 district administrators, principals and school psychologists, came to McGee's defense, indicating in a survey conducted by the group that his early departure would be "detrimental" to the district.
McGee announced earlier this year that he would retire when his contract ended in 2018, bringing an end to a 45-year career in education, the last three in Palo Alto. That announcement also came after a series of closed-session performance evaluations the board conducted in the wake of community uproar over the district's response to reports of sexual violence at Paly.
McGee's annual compensation is $315,918, including a $750 per-month car allowance. He opted not to take a 3 percent raise provided in his contract for this school year. Coincidentally, on Tuesday night the school board retroactively approved McGee’s raises from 2015 and 2016 because it had failed to take a public vote on them, as required by law.
McGee came to the district in 2014 as an outside hire with a long career in Illinois, described by many as an educator with penchant for entrepreneurship and high-level vision but scattered attention to detail. This description came to bear in his years in the Palo Alto school district, where his tenure has been marked by both accomplishments and missteps.
Parent-advocates have said McGee helped bring issues that affect minority and low-income students and special-education students and families to the forefront in a way that hasn’t been done before in this district, though much work remains to be done for both populations. One of his first actions as superintendent was to create the Minority Achievement and Talent Development committee, which tackled thorny, persistent issues of racial and socio-economic inequity and unconscious bias in the district. This initiative "is still bearing fruit" for students and families, Bomar said Tuesday night.
In an effort to deliver on an early pledge to be an accessible and transparent leader, McGee has provided community updates in monthly videos produced by students and started hosting live online webinars about pressing issues to increase access and transparency beyond in-person school board meetings. He’s a frequent presence on school campuses and after-hours school events. This year, he started hosting on-campus office hours at schools. He also launched a Twitter account and set a goal for himself of posting at least one photo each day of on-the-ground happenings.
One year in as superintendent, McGee launched a passion project -- a research program for high schoolers that has since grown in size and popularity. The Advanced Authentic Research program, or AAR, 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.)
He was at the helm for a series of major events over the last three years, including the district's first-ever multi-year teachers contract; a student suicide cluster that renewed conversations about academic pressure and youth mental health; and the resolution of a yearslong federal investigation into violations of anti-discrimination law Title IX in several cases at both high schools.
Several controversies have marred McGee’s time in Palo Alto. Most recently, he has been criticized for his lack of oversight in two issues: the recently discovered union-contract error and Paly sexual-assault case.
Just before the new school year started in August, the district realized that senior leadership had missed a critical deadline in its union contracts: to formally reopen negotiations by March 15 given that property-tax revenue had come in below a certain level. This will cost the district $6 million in unbudgeted raises and bonuses for its teaching and classified staff.
The contractual mistake -- first described by McGee as a "misunderstanding," then later an "error" -- followed last summer’s underestimation of property-tax projections, which resulted in an ongoing, multimillion dollar budget shortfall that has consumed much of the school board’s and staff’s attention for the last year.
And last week, two attorneys from a law firm brought in to investigate the district’s response to the 2016 sexual-assault report at Paly said McGee "failed to exercise sufficient oversight of the district's compliance responsibilities under Title IX, state law and Board policy."
The lawyers' report, presented publicly last week, detailed district and Paly administrators’ repeated failure to uphold policy and law -- a déjà-vu moment for many of the same Title IX issues that plagued McGee’s predecessor, Kevin Skelly.