This year was a tumultuous one for the Palo Alto Unified School District. In June, then-superintendent Max McGee announced he would retire in one year but within months resigned under mounting pressure from the Board of Education and community members, leaving the school board to appoint a district newcomer as interim superintendent. An alleged on-campus sexual assault roiled the community in May, leading to personnel changes and a stinging report on the district's continued failure to adhere to federal and state laws as well as its own policies. And an avoidable budget error came with not only a big financial cost -- $6 million in unbudgeted pay raises -- but also a relational cost with the district's employee unions.
As the district enters 2018, it's still in transition, working to move the needle on critical issues and restore morale while the school board focuses on what trustees say is their single most important job: hiring a new superintendent.
McGee's position wasn't the only one to become vacant this year; in fact, it followed a wave of turnover, with mid-year departures and end-of-year retirements by key staff. At the district level, the assistant superintendent for human resources (Scott Bowers), associate superintendent (Markus Autrey), chief student services officer (Holly Wade, who also served as Title IX coordinator), special-education director (Chiara Perry), equity coordinator (Martha Castellon) and student services officer (Brenda Carrillo) all left in 2017.
At the schools, Gunn High Principal Denise Herrmann left for a job in another district, Ohlone Elementary Principal Nicki Smith retired, Jordan Middle principal Katie Kinnaman resigned and Terman Middle Principal Pier Angeli La Place requested reassignment within the district.
New hires are filling some of the district's most critical and scrutinized positions: Karen Hendricks, who was brought on as the new human-resources head in July, was quickly named interim superintendent; Lana Conaway, the district's new assistant superintendent of strategic initiatives and operations, also oversees special education, an area in which parents have pushed to reform for years; and Keith Wheeler, the district's new equity coordinator, is expected to help the district make long-overdue progress on closing its achievement gap.
Title IX scrutiny
A key, new position also was filled this year: full-time Title IX coordinator, whose sole responsibility is to oversee civil-rights compliance across the district. In October, the district hired Megan Farrell, a consultant with experience in law, higher education and federal anti-discrimination law Title IX.
Her hiring reflects the district's efforts to right years of compliance lapses, particularly with federal law Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual harassment and violence, at schools.
Title IX arguably became a household term in the school community this year. News reports in May that a male Palo Alto High School junior accused of an on-campus sexual assault -- and previously convicted in juvenile court for a separate, off-campus sexual assault -- had remained on campus for months, sparked intense indignation and concern among students and parents. They poured into school board meetings to question district staff and demand the resignations of McGee and Paly administrators who had been involved in the case.
The case was compounded by the fact that the district had been under federal investigation for its handling of sexual violence for several years. The month before the Paly case was reported publicly, the school board signed a resolution agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, agreeing to a series of corrective actions for the district's past Title IX violations -- violations that reappeared in the Paly case.
The community's uproar has resulted in a heightened focus on accountability, much like what is happening at the national level in response to high-profile cases of sexual misconduct. A new online system is tracking an unprecedented number of reports of potential discrimination, and a superintendent's task force, formed this fall, is working to effect change through education, compliance and prevention programs.
"We acknowledge we are in a new era," Trustee Terry Godfrey said during a Dec. 14 Board Policy Review Committee discussion of the district's complaint procedures.
Another issue that will carry over into 2018 is the contractual error made by district staff last spring that resulted in unbudgeted pay raises.
As the Weekly first reported in September, senior leadership failed to formally notify teachers and employee unions that the district planned to exercise its option to reopen negotiations, as required by the contracts, with the intent of canceling a 3 percent raise this year.
While McGee and the unions sought to downplay the issue by describing it as a "misunderstanding" due to "confusion" over the terms of the union contracts, board members saw it as a serious, "self-inflicted" management failure.
The mistake cost the district -- which was already in conservation mode after staff underestimated property-tax projections last summer -- $4.4 million. The unions have since agreed to reopen negotiations over a pending 1 percent bonus that could cost the district an additional $1.5 million if not canceled. (Under the contract, if the actual property tax received for the 2017-18 school year is greater than budgeted for by 1.5 percent or more, a 1 percent automatic bonus will be increased to 2 percent.) The district is projecting a $3.5 million budget deficit this year.
While the district faced its share of struggles, it also resolved several hot-button issues. After months of community input, the district agreed to rename Jordan and Terman middle schools due to their namesakes' promotion of eugenics; decided to continue its controversial sex-education curriculum; and made a final decision to report both unweighted and weighted cumulative GPAs for all sophomores, juniors and seniors who earn a C or better in honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses, starting with the class of 2021.
Momentum stalled, however, on two key issues: special education and the achievement gap. School board members have committed to paying closer attention to both in the new year.
Also, in January, consultants hired to oversee the superintendent search are scheduled to hold public meetings, interviews and focus groups over several days. Based on this input, consultants will compile a leadership profile and bring candidates forward for the board's consideration. And an advisory committee convened by the board will meet with the final candidates confidentially and give feedback to the board toward the end of the process.
When McGee tendered his letter of resignation in late September -- read out loud at a school board meeting by then-president Godfrey, sitting next to McGee -- he recognized the current state of the school district.
The community is in need of not only a new leader "who will sustain all that is good," he wrote, but also "heal what is hurt."