"Organizational systems are key to the functioning of the organization. They often are fairly invisible and hard to see. Most people are not trained to be aware of them. But, without well-functioning organizational systems, the people in the organization will be constantly bumping into each other and falling over each other — which leads to 'heroic efforts' and, more importantly, to frustration and anger, disengagement and resignation."
While those statements describe perfectly one of the current critical shortcomings of the Palo Alto Unified School District, they were written more than 10 years ago by an experienced team of local organizational consultants hired by the school board to sort out a previous controversy — an organizational crisis that erupted under former Superintendent Mary Frances Callan.
Callan — whose hard-edged, detached management style and lack of transparency had created almost mutinous turmoil among her subordinates and division within the board and community — announced in December 2006 that she would resign at the end of the school year.
The board wisely saw the need for an independent assessment of the district's management disarray and hired Geoff Ball, Jerry Talley and Patricia Brown to obtain input from the 71 people (board members, district administrators, principals, deans, etc.) that made up the broader management group and prepare an analysis of the problems.
The goal was to help Callan's newly hired replacement, Kevin Skelly, understand the challenges and needs of the district and to serve as a road map for change.
But Skelly was hired before the report was completed and his experience and skills didn't line up at all with the identified district needs. The consultants' work, which was to have been the first phase of a process that would continue with the consultants assisting with implementation of institutional and cultural change, was soon forgotten; the second phase never happened and the problems identified went largely unaddressed. They are now even more deeply embedded in our school district culture.
Most of this 31-page analysis is still relevant today, and the report should be required reading for the current school board, district leadership and interested community members. We've posted it here.
"If the board were to forego serious efforts in these areas," the report predicted, referring to five key observations and recommendations, "we would anticipate significant negative consequences (i.e., loss of long-tenured talent to other districts; continued, if not escalated, hostility between the board and the managers; loss of energy and commitment in support of high performance; loss of trust and rapport; and damage to the board's credibility)."
In hiring Skelly, the board was naturally attracted to all the qualities it found problematic in Callan. Skelly was a teacher's superintendent and viewed his role as running interference, keeping the community at bay while decision-making was largely pushed out to individual schools, with a limited district office role, exactly the opposite of what the consultants found was needed.
With Wednesday night's appointment of Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Karen Hendricks as interim superintendent, the board has put in place a qualified administrator who, while only joining the district in July, served recently as acting superintendent in the Carmel Unified School District and in HR roles in Carmel and Santa Cruz. We trust that she will be able to competently lead the district while a thoughtful search process is completed and hope she will be supported by each of the district's diverse stakeholders in the interest of moving together to stabilize the organization and focus on the future.
The school board has taken the bold and correct step to bring about Superintendent Max McGee's early exit and now has an enormous opportunity in the months ahead to not only select the district's next leader but to examine what is organizationally needed to shift away from a culture of secretiveness, fear, distrust and defensiveness.
The need for a complete review of district administrative and compliance functions has been obvious for years, but McGee did not bring the skills or interest to address them. His constant rejiggering of position titles and reporting structures created confusion and made matters worse.
We hope the board's work will include getting help from independent organizational consultants separate from the actual search for a new superintendent and that it moves ahead to establish the long-needed positions of general counsel and an ombudsperson empowered to advocate for parents with grievances.
There is a lot of organizational and cultural remediation needed in the months ahead. We hope parents, students, teachers, administrators and other employees agree to set aside differences and join together to support the board and each other in this essential work of restoring managerial excellence and integrity to our district.