Editorial: Next steps for school district

School board must focus on prioritizing the district's critical needs

"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.


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5 people like this
Posted by for starters
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 29, 2017 at 9:10 am

[Post removed; off topic]

2 people like this
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 29, 2017 at 12:37 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

The need for EXPERIENCED ( up through the learning curve from teacher to administrator )people that know the Federal Rules and " local mores " , is sorely needed right now. A superintendent must be able to work with both the Board and with the upper management IN AN OPEN AND PROFESSIONAL MANNER.
That administrator must also be able to " put out several fires " that the PAUSD have right now. Openly professional enough to admit that there is a problem and makes open decisions that involve the community. Handling unions also is a need but not important right now. This is sorely needed now. A local candidate I know is unwilling to come out of retirement to do the job. This person was able to " put out fires when they were small " and keep the SJUSD working. I could ask about assisting the finding of such an administrator to set the PAUSD running on the proper track if there is enough interest in my doing so.

14 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 29, 2017 at 1:40 pm

The organizational report seems even more relevant today than when it was written. The district has a very large workforce and large budget covering a broad set of responbilities, but in recent years without a commensurate sophistication of organizational structure and systematic approaches in many areas.
The board needs to provide a foundation for improved structure, systems and culture going forward. Merely changing superintendents, without structural changes, will not make the improvements that our students and teachers deserve.

12 people like this
Posted by A Thought
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 29, 2017 at 3:42 pm

While the board searches for the next permanent superintendent I hope they will also seriously consider whether Karen Hendricks might be able to grow into the role. I don't know Ms. Hendricks, but she's already here and has a running start, and apparently has great references. Hiring someone that is already a superintendent somewhere else means that person wants to leave where they are, so they are either unhappy (or knows their district is unhappy with them) or they are only focused on their next career move. We don't need someone in either of those situations.

If Ms. Hendricks has the personality, transparency, and attitude we need, let's not write her off just because Carmel is a tiny district. Maybe she hasn't become a full-time superintendent yet because she doesn't prioritize the necessary politics over just doing a great job.

5 people like this
Posted by Terry
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 29, 2017 at 6:19 pm

Given that the last two superintendents were incompetent, seems unlikely that the next one will be different.

16 people like this
Posted by Angry Paly Parent
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 30, 2017 at 12:16 am

Angry Paly Parent is a registered user.

The history of American corporations dealing with PR disasters has great lessons, both positive and negative, to be learned by leaders of large organizations moving through difficult circumstances. Unfortunately, it appears the PAUSD board and administration has decided to ignore those lessons and, as a consequence, blunders along a path of incompetence of their own making literally years in the making. Now is the time for the Board to admit failure, clean house of the rotten core within the administration, and move on to a better tomorrow.

First, everyone at 25 Churchill needs to be terminated, with or without cause, at the end of the school year. Those that can prove competence and a lack of misfeasance can be rehired, even in their same position. But at this point, the presumption has to be, given the overwhelming evidence, that no one within the District Office is doing their job adequately. Sadly, we are at a point where the presumption of innocence isn't adequate: every individual needs to prove they can, first and foremost, protect the safety of our children even if doing that puts them at risk of angering their superiors.

Second, all administrators at Paly and Gunn need to be terminated, with the same presumption of guilt. We already have copious evidence that Kim Diorio and Kathy Laurence have place their own professional interests above the safety and security of students. How Diorio got her job in the first place is a fiasco: after failing to report 25 or more incidents of alleged sexual harassment by Phil Winston, she finally stood up and was rewarded? Talk about failing up. Kathy Laurence failed in the same way, effectively ignoring allegations of sexual assault (and not advising parents of their rights) in order to protect Diorio and the district from bad press. For her loyalty, she gets promoted to Principal of Gunn.

Finally, the staff at both high schools, many of whom who showed up to defend Diorio at the last Board meeting, need to be re-indoctrinated as to their primary duties as teachers: first, ensure as safe and secure an environment as possible for the children entrusted to them, and second, to educate those children to their best of their abilities. Loyalty to their boss or to their union is not part of their duty. In a well-functioning district, those are nice luxuries to exhibit. Sadly, as evidence by the bullying, sexual assaults, mental health issues, and budget mismanagement, the PAUSD is not a well-functioning district.

Finally, the people of Palo Alto need to recognize that the current Board is inadequate to the task of running this organization. Since Callan, Board members have come and gone, but the district's problems have only metastasized. We each have a vote and we need to use it to purge our community of the incompetence plaguing what should be a stellar educational environment. We vote for every school bond, we donate to PAPiE in huge amounts, we support our schools at after school events, field trips, classroom volunteering, and sports and spirit events, and what do we get? School administrators circling the wagons, covering their asses, obscuring public inquiry by prohibiting staff form keeping written notes, and using privacy laws intended to protect the interests of children to cover their own incompetent rears. The Board is complicit in this and needs to go.

12 people like this
Posted by Inside Cal, outside PA
a resident of Juana Briones School
on Sep 30, 2017 at 6:37 am

We've lost too many principals, and not enough board members. Use a different superintendent search firm than Leadership Associates. They advertise themselves as being able to find the right candidate, but all they really do is match up the district with one of their favorites in their club. That's how they picked Skelly, that's how they picked McGee. Only now, after 10 years, is the PAW admitting the temper tantrum that the administrators threw to start the 10 years of tumult. PAUSD needs to hire a local outsider who is more focused on doing the job than promoting his or her brand. If you see something like Max Mail, then run. Hendricks, no. She's a great interim, but she would be as big if a mistake as Scott Bowers was.

5 people like this
Posted by Parent 2
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 30, 2017 at 3:04 pm

When they were searching for the former superintendent, I told and begged the board members not to hire the same company that searched for Skelly, but, I was ignored, and they went for the same company. There were other companies to choose from and sounded better. I hope this time Melissa learned a lesson and does not make the same mistake she did before (Melisa along with her old buddies were the ones who went for the same company and the ones who hired McGee). Please do not waste our parcel tax or students funds in finding another inept super.

7 people like this
Posted by Up With People, Families
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 1, 2017 at 8:27 am

Very good points. But nowhere in this article has anyone said overtly that a school district is a service organization that exists to serve the children and parents, who are not beside the point in this equation. They shouldn't be treated as the third wheel (and bogeyman/punching bag as they so often are). The editorial above makes excellent points - thanks especially for the apt background - yet still talks around parents almost like they aren't in the room, which has been one of the biggest reasons for our problems. The reason we even have school districts instead of answering directly to Sacramento's state BoE is to give the local community, especially the families the district is supposed to serve, the power to ensure the district best meets rheir needs.

Our district administrators have been all about trying to thwart parents, not help them solve problems. In dedicating themselves to solving the problems, they would have understood where the systems didn't work, fixed the systems, and prevented all ensuing (and pending) scandals.

In special ed situations, the complaints from parents were strikingly similar: overly legalistic aggressiveness by the district, tactics designed to induce stress and thwart legal protections, lying and untrustworthy behavior and scheming behind parents' backs, secrecy and failure to honor laws and district procedures. The legal protections are supposed to help prevent staff, who have all the power, from running amok, and allow families to leverage the right things when they go wrong. Families are an essential part of this equation.

I welcomed McGee when he arrived, but my own cautionary prediction on TS was that he would only succeed if he understood how to balance the various groups he serves, teachers, staff, and families, and that previous administrations had been far too centered on staff and teachers while holding families they are supposed to serve at distant arms' length. In order to break past destructive cycles, a new super really had to/must find a way to engage more fully with the families again, especially those who experienced the problems - they know better than anyone how things went wrong. If I were the new super, I would make an attempt to find and call in families with the worst problems, listen with an open mind (because they're going to be upset), carefully look at the evidence they bring, and then pay attention to who in the organization responds by attacking the people who complain on personal grounds to avoid dealing with the issues they bring up.

It will take a really strong person to be willing to overcome the inevitable prejudice against that family, and call them back in, tell them what was said about them, and give them a chance to correct the "record". Let the family connect them to others who can vouch that the gossip was wrong. Look soberly at the facts that refute staff beliefs without letting staff frame it through CYA. Whatever it takes to understand the truth. Then fire whoever it was who instigated the gossip, engaged in lies or coverup, or stoked that kind of unorofessional behavior, because it will happen and it was a main reason the CYA went unchecked. Anyone who had done anything wrong or who didn't like some parent could just claim whatever they wanted to the superintendent and teachers, and from then on, there was no using the laws to fix things or hold anyone to account. Teachers have been lied to and intimidated against standing up, too, at Paly they were only doing what they were supposed to from on high in the district. Fixing that will require more than just changing the superintendent, though. The organization needs mechanisms to allow every situation that goes wrong to be not only an opportunity for collaboration and problem solving on the individual level, but also on the organizational level.

Families: please always remember, this district and the positions and power of the board and superintendent, are established in the CITY CHARTER, basically, Palo Alto's "constitution". You can go online and look it up. Search on "Palo Alto City Charter text" or something similar, and read the short section on the school district. Not all school districts even in California charter cities are set out in the charter. Since ours is, we have a unique opportunity to fundamentally change things if we must. All it takes is a City Charter amendment, which anyone in the community can create through a process much like a citizen referendum. You basically propose a change to the City Charter, in this case, to the school district section, collect signatures according to the rules in the City code regarding city charter amendments - it's not that many signatues, and the process allows debate and publicity - present the signatures to the City Council, and they put the proposal on the ballot.

Per the above comment about firing everyone and rehiring only the ones that proved they are worthy this year - the state rules (that our charter establishes as our rules, although we can change that per above), allows districts to do that by reorganizing. I think it would be one way out of the union contract this year, frankly, although I don't think it allows rehiring former employees at a lower salary - it's not a process intended for union busting, but it does allow a big escape hatch to reset the organization. I think - I am not familiar with the process. One reason it exists is to allow districts, for example, to become unified districts.

7 people like this
Posted by Up With People, Families
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 2, 2017 at 7:15 am

"It could thus be concluded that a new district has no obligation to honor an employment contract with any former superintent"

I looked that up on the state BoE site on school district unification and reorganization. It also says that in reorganization, the district has no obligation to honor the salaries of certificated employees but does have to honor the salaries of noncertificated employees, that is, of those who remain and aren't terminated in a reorg. PAUSD could deunify, fire a bunch of people, terminate contracts, etc. It would not be my own first choice, but families need to realize that the option exists to radically reduce the topheaviness and cost of district administration and create a more effective district. Menlo Atherton does not have a unified district.

The better option, I think, is to create a position of ombudsman who has the power to enforce the laws. If the district is not providing records, for example, or lacks procedures to provide records under the laws as ours still does amazingly, then an ombudsman should have the power to force them to and to create an employee mark that would be essentially a performance demerit for anyone involved in thwarting the law. If families get no help with bullying or sexual assault, they should be able to take their concerns to someone locally who has the power and mandate to help them, and who does not reside in or drink the water in the district office. The ombudsmen should have the power and obligation to assess and report to the community on how well district legal is supporting and protecting families, from families' perspective. Somehow this district needs mechanisms to represent, serve, defend, and protect families and students first, under the laws and its own rules. Why should district legal engage in scorched earth tactics against special ed families when the law says they should be proactive in protecting them? Why should district legal essentially engage in being the personal CYA of employees who are breaking laws as we have had (probably with the firms directing employees to do things that will increase their fees)? We need mechanisms so that doesn't happen. The district has paid for communications positions, in part justified to handle records requests, yet still does an abysmal job. We should be using money for families, not to prop up an overly heavy, overpaid, underperforming administrative structure.

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Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Oct 2, 2017 at 11:46 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

To " up with people " The OCR HAS the local ombudsman in Santa Clara County, I have mentioned this many times in these comments. My retired Assistant Administrator has used these services many times to help resolve SJUSD problems.

As for coming out of retirement to resolve the PAUSD problems " no,no,NO, NO!" was the response.

The problems at PAUSD are too toxic for any professional to add to their resume; Who wants to take a chance when they become a middle man?

Cleaning houses as another has mentioned would be in the best TAXPAYER'S interest. Firing and rehiring would be a good example, IF IT INCLUDES THE SCHOOL BOARD at the same time.

The OLD system FAILED, this system would be no worse. No " buy-outs ", no " Golden Parachutes ".

Since CA is an " at-will " State, firing and re-hiring the best can be done quickly. Just have a PAUSD parent present with absolute veto power to stop cronyism.

3 people like this
Posted by Up With People, Families
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 3, 2017 at 12:34 am

Please give more info about what you mean about OCR having an ombudsman, etc including links. OCR is not a conflict resolution service. They aren't law enforcement. They are a last resort. They do not help districts weed out problem or untrustworthy employees.

An ombudsman as I an describing is very different than that and is about balancing power when another side abuses it. Going for typical conflict resolution doesn't work in that case because both parties have to want to work things out in good faith?

4 people like this
Posted by Resignations
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 3, 2017 at 4:28 pm

@ the punisher - Was there a buy out of the Assistant Superintendent who left PAUSD after not ensuring compliance? I cannot find a record of her leaving in the Board of Education documents. The Board is required to approve all employee changes - such as resignations. I do not see this in any of Board of Ed packets on line since March, 2016 when her leaving the District was announced. There was a Board of Ed closed meeting session last school year where her performance as compliance officer appeared to be on the Agenda.

For those who think the Superintendent's leaving was sudden, it wasn't. Since last March, there were multiple closed door Board sessions where his performance was on agenda.

After receiving a less than positive performance evaluation, his choice, like any school District employee, was to improve his performance in a short period of time or leave.

He announced he planned to retire at the end of this school year after the Board did not give him a positive evaluation.

Over the summer and fall more issues emerged, and his performance was again discussed in yet more closed Board sessions. Some were lengthy, with meetings re-convening after a public meeting ended until 12:00 p.m., or later. (Because Meeting Minutes take 6 months to 1 year for PAUSD to get out, it will be months before this is ever reflected in the Board records.)

Also, the Superintendent knew what the OCR's findings were well before they were released to the public. He could attend meetings with the OCR if he wished.

The Superintendent did attend the closed door meetings with the Cozan attorneys before it was released to the public, so he knew very well what criticisms of his performance.

He negotiated a Settlement Agreement to leave, something that takes having his own lawyer, and which also takes time.

It wasn't sudden. He had ample warning, time to prepare, and his own attorney.

He was not forced out by gossip, or by on line sniping, or by anonymous reports, or by parent social media sites, or by newspapers, or by the OCR, or by teachers, or by parents, or by the Unions, or by lawyers, or by his own staff.

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Posted by Resignations
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 3, 2017 at 4:30 pm

Sorry, correction to above - should have said leaving the District was March, 2017, not 2016. Hard to know with no District record.

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

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