News

Editorial: Progress on school reforms

From term limits to a new seating chart, school board eyes improved governance

Without a lot of fanfare, drama or the divisive undercurrents that have created so much disruption and controversy for many years, the Palo Alto Board of Education is looking to implement changes that could significantly improve district decision-making and create a predictable flow of new perspectives and ideas.

Most importantly, on Feb. 13 the board voted 4-1 (with Melissa Baten Caswell opposed) to put a ballot measure before voters this November that would limit elected school board members to two, four-year terms. The proposal, made months ago by first-term trustee Todd Collins, would put in place the same eight-year cap on school board service as has become the norm for most elected city and county officials in California. This is an overdue step that we strongly support.

While stepping down voluntarily after eight years has been the informal practice in Palo Alto for more than 40 years, it has been ignored twice in the just the last six years— by former trustee Camille Townsend, who served three terms plus a year for 13 years total, and Baten Caswell, who ran for a third term in 2016 and edged out one-term incumbent Heidi Emerling for third place. Like Townsend, Baten Caswell will have served 13 years when her current term expires in 2020.

The value of limiting terms for local elected officials has been well-established. The advantages of incumbency are so great that those in the community who are interested in serving are discouraged from running unless an incumbent chooses not to run. Obtaining important endorsements is difficult because the friends and supporters of incumbents are unwilling to switch horses. And with the odds of success so low, the expense of mounting a campaign against an incumbent also keeps good candidates from stepping forward.

This year provides the rare opportunity to adopt term limits without appearing to be aimed at any of the current trustees, since each has stated his or her intention to not serve more than two terms. Two (Ken Dauber and Terry Godfrey) will complete their first term this December and two (Collins and Jennifer DiBrienza) are less than two years into their first terms.

We applaud Collins' initiative in bringing this proposal to the board, and Dauber, Godfrey and DiBrienza for supporting it.

Other welcomed governance improvements are under discussion by the board. At its Feb. 6 retreat the board considered ways to improve staff-board communications, strengthen staff reports and presentations and monitor progress toward district goals.

Until interim Superintendent Karen Hendricks pushed back, the board showed enthusiasm for another proposal made by Collins — that the superintendent be seated with other senior district staff members instead of the dais alongside board members. The current arrangement, board members agreed, isolates the superintendent from her top administrators and creates the impression that the superintendent is disconnected from, takes less ownership of and is less accountable for staff presentations. It also provides no opportunity for the superintendent to confer with senior staff during the meeting, as occurs regularly at city council meetings.

Hendricks stressed the importance of projecting to the public and staff that the district was led by the board and superintendent and asked for the chance to play a more active role in staff presentations without moving locations. The board ultimately agreed to finish out this school year without changing the seating arrangement but appears likely to take advantage of a transition to a permanent superintendent in July and make the change. Godfrey correctly pointed out the bad optics of moving a female superintendent mid-year from the dais to the staff table after many years of male superintendents sitting with the board.

We have long questioned why school superintendents have been seated with the elected board members instead of their staff and agree this is a reform whose time has come.

We also like the board's desire to improve staff presentations by having them focus on the policy reasons and trade-offs behind recommendations rather than PowerPoint presentations of data and background information that is better contained in a well-written staff report. Similarly, the board's request for dashboards and other reports that are concise summaries of progress toward goals will make meetings more efficient and create more accountability.

The board's attention to how the governing process is working and the roles of the board and superintendent is a welcome step toward rebuilding public trust and confidence in the district. There is much work to be done, especially around transparency and staff accountability, but this needed attention to basic governance is a good and needed beginning.

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Comments

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 23, 2018 at 9:17 am

In light of the recent shooting spree in Florida and even today news of another double school shooting (fortunately not fatal) today, it is important I think that school safety should be high on the list of priorities for any school district.

Both our high school campuses as well as the rest of our schools, are extremely open with many entrances. It would be worth knowing exactly how well our school authorities are prepared for any incident that we pray will never happen but still should be well prepared about. I know the schools have code red drills, but as parents and community are we just as well informed as the students about what will be done if that dreadful day does come?


21 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 23, 2018 at 9:27 am

If I were given to crying, I could have laughed and cried at the same time when I read this article. The title was so promising: "Progress on school reforms". The actual subject: term limits, and, seating arrangements.

What happened to Title IX, Section 504, Special Ed, sexual harassment, bullying, civil rights compliance, and the ever present finance issues?




6 people like this
Posted by egrats
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 23, 2018 at 10:57 am

@Anon,

TOOOO TRUE!

If this is what the school board calls "progress on school reforms", a two term limit is two terms too much!

They really just don't get it.


10 people like this
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 23, 2018 at 11:08 am

I have to agree with the "anon" poster immediately above: the School Board spends a huge amount of time on many _completely worthwhile_ agenda items (such as new processes to deal better with sexual harassment, closing the minority achievement gap, helping teachers with affordable housing, etc.).

But looking back at the agenda for the past 25 board meetings, I don't see much discussion about improving the educational experiences of the "rest of the students".

What do I mean? How about having more Board discussions around (1) reducing workload stress, (2) eliminating the practice of grading on a curve whereby teachers assign a forced distribution to classroom grades, (3) limiting or scrutinizing the number of AP classes a student can take simultaneously, (4) debating the value of offering more innovative, project-based learning so that our kids are better prepared for the 21st century workforce, etc.

I think the School Board ought to talk about the stuff in my 1st paragraph (which they do) as well as the stuff in my 3rd paragraph (which they really don't). It is possible to walk and talk at the same time.


4 people like this
Posted by Reform? Still waiting
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 23, 2018 at 11:19 am

What about reform of the culture? The biggest change would be changing the backbiting CYA culture among employees especially admins, and ending gaslighting of parents or kids whose special needs present problems to solve. Reforms that bring about a collaborative culture between parents and staff would benefit every area mentioned by the poster above.

Could I, say, send a records request now and maybe get it filled in good faith instead of getting a runaround or someone having to make me wait while they consult the "unofficial" record they have stashed offsite, in order to get their story straight? Could I bring up one of the many swept-under-the-rug issues and expect problem solving and human kindness instead of an employee smear campaign behind my back to teachers or worse, retaliation that affects my child? Will they lean in or continue to hold anyone with a problem to solve (including past bad behavior by district employees) at arms' length?

Will the teachers going forward feel empowered to be upstanders, or will they be just as subject to the machinations of admins with a personal agenda against families they imagine "embarrassed" them? In short, has anything changed so that we can have truth and reconcilation, or is the next scandal going to hit the fan again and again because the culture never changes?

Board, we need a reformer at the helm. Fire anyone in leadership who cannot behave in a trustworthy, upstanding, and collaborative manner.




11 people like this
Posted by bloomberg
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 23, 2018 at 12:04 pm

bloomberg is a registered user.

Perhaps I'm an optimist, but I am still waiting for the school board to walk back their idiotic decision to erase some of the history that has made Palo Alto (and Silicon Valley) so special, by obliterating the names of Terman and Jordan from our middle schools.

Who are these people? Lewis Terman (psychologist, promoter of the Stanford-Binet test, which has been in use for over 100 years), Fred Terman (EE, is considered the father of Silicon Valley -- his students included Litton, Varian and Packard, whom he encouraged to form companies), David Jordan (ichthyologist, first president of Stanford, from 1891 to 1913).

And all this nonsense is resulting from the complaint of a single parent, which the school board rubber stamped in an orgy of righteous political correctness.

Once they have decided on new names, let's give the citizens of Palo Alto a chance to vote on it, to embrace our unique and special history and to consign this silly and expensive campaign to the dustbin.


5 people like this
Posted by Board Watcher
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 23, 2018 at 12:06 pm

@Barron Park Dad,

I think there is good news for you - they do talk about those things. Maybe you've missed the discussions of actually implementing the homework policy that Dauber brings up on a regular basis. There was a long discussion of it at the last meeting and it is one of the small set of "District Goals" for the year.

There is no curve grading left in the district; if you are aware of any, please point it out.

Limiting APs has been talked about repeatedly over the years but rejected. Even Challenge Success, the primary proponents of reducing student stress, no longer advocates for it. Both high schools require students and parents to meet with counselors and sign acknowledgements if they register for more than a certain number of APs.

On "innovative" programs, it really needs to be driven by the staff and teachers, not the Board. The Board is in a poor position to propose or even judge good pedagogy - they are just community volunteers. If the staff vets and proposes it, they can review and bless; McGee brought forward very little except for his "build me a new school" proposal, which was sensibly shot down. My sense is that most of the innovation - flipped classrooms, hybrid classes, SEL deployment - happens at the schools without any approval required by the board.


5 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 23, 2018 at 12:32 pm

Posted by bloomberg, a resident of Barron Park

>> Perhaps I'm an optimist, but I am still waiting for the school board to walk back their idiotic decision to erase some of the history that has made Palo Alto (and Silicon Valley) so special, by obliterating the names of Terman and Jordan from our middle schools.

It was/is a very sensible decision.

>> Who are these people?

Been over all this many times.

>> And all this nonsense is resulting from the complaint of a single parent, which the school board rubber stamped in an orgy of righteous political correctness.

[Portion removed.]

Houston, Texas, and several other schools in Texas and other places in the South, recently changed the names of schools from "Robert E. Lee" to other, less offensive names. I think that was a good thing. How about you? Anyway, that discussion is already active in two other threads.

>> Once they have decided on new names, let's give the citizens of Palo Alto a chance to vote on it, to embrace our unique and special history and to consign this silly and expensive campaign to the dustbin.

School names have changed many, many times. It can't be that expensive.

There are many things the school reforms the board should be discussing, including bullying (gender-based, disability-based, etc), as well as reducing student stress, working to reduce obsession with AP exams, etc.


7 people like this
Posted by From A Sane District
a resident of another community
on Feb 23, 2018 at 12:41 pm

Hello Palo Alto Board:

The superintendent ALWAYS sits with the Board. Maybe attend another school board meeting in San Mateo or Santa Clara County to see how a functional board operates.

And focus on setting a vision and hiring a good superintendent. And stop talking and grand standing until 1am. Not knowing you role and allowing the District to careen out of control is just shameful.

You did an expensive national search for your last supe--that didn't produce much. Hire Karen and EMPOWER her be the superintendent--she has a proven track record and is actually willing to take the job. I know you won't do that and will probably make another poor or odd choice, but this is not rocket science. This is what good boards do: Hire a good supe, make good policy without undue discussion/process, address emergencies (like Title 9 complaints), and approve prudent collective bargaining agreements and budgets. How hard is that?

Stop wasting time on term limits and where the supe sits. Are you going to address the type of chair she sits in next? How to decorate her office to create collaborative relationships? Maybe you could hire PlaceWorks to re-decorate the Board room?




20 people like this
Posted by Board watcher too
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Feb 23, 2018 at 1:15 pm

Thanks for this editorial. Guess what, a board that never takes a vote and spends hours sniping at each other isn't getting anything done for kids. The last 2 elections have produced a board that actually seems able to make sane decisions and do it without needless conflict. They also are routinely finishing their meetings between 10:00 and 11:00 (not 1am). They have also almost climbed out of the civil rights and budget holes left by the previous boards. Let's see if they can focus attention on some key issues like homework and special ed.

As for where the superintendent sits, I agree that moving him/her to the staff table makes sense. She is not a board member, why is she sitting with the board?

Hendricks seems to be doing a good job, I agree that hiring her may be the next right move.


Like this comment
Posted by egrats
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 23, 2018 at 4:38 pm

@BWT,
"They have also almost climbed out of the civil rights and budget holes left by the previous boards."

I guess you haven't been watching much in the last few yeasr: Web Link
That $6 million budget blunder was reported on Fri, Sep 1, 2017, 6:50 am and is down to the complete ineptness of this board to follow through on something as simple as making sure the negotiations with the union are happening.


2 people like this
Posted by Paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 23, 2018 at 6:56 pm

@egrats: Agree with that, although Collins and Dauber took the lead on pushing McGee out the door because of that screwup. The contract itself was adopted on a 4-1 vote with only Dauber voting no, and Godfrey and Caswell both voting yes.


Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Downtown North

on Feb 23, 2018 at 9:10 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?


8 people like this
Posted by BW III
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 23, 2018 at 9:30 pm

@From A Sane District - first, no, all superintendents don't sit with their board. Many do, some don't. On the other hand, with city councils and city managers, it's the opposite. Bottom line, superintendents are never board members, but they are the leaders of the staff, so not sure why they shouldn't sit with and lead their team, like city managers. Just as the board should stick to their role, so should the superintendent.

Second, Karen Hendricks is an experienced interim superintendent, but was passed over by her last district for the permanent spot. She was there for 3 years so they got a good look at her and decided to go with someone else from outside the district (and the state - he came from Illinois). Not sure why, and it certainly shouldn't rule her out, but it seems like the Palo Alto board should check out other candidates.


Like this comment
Posted by questions still remain
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 23, 2018 at 9:47 pm

" The contract itself was adopted on a 4-1 vote with only Dauber voting no, and Godfrey and Caswell both voting yes."

I don't see how that excuses Dauber's $6 million dollar blunder.


8 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 23, 2018 at 10:25 pm

Not sure it's up to board members to follow the superintendent around to see if he has actually sent a letter when he said he did. Let's make sure the next one actually follows through. McGee looked like a train wreck by year 2.


Like this comment
Posted by coincidence?
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 24, 2018 at 3:45 am

Oh, Resident, if only the board had asked whether the superintendent had sent a letter. They didn't even manage to do that.
As reported "[The board] said they recognized the need for a formal notification to the unions by district management" but no one from the board ever followed up!

It is an interesting concept, however. Paraphrasing your post - "The board has no responsibility to make sure the superintendent follows their wishes". Since that's been the board's attitude, it certainly explains McGee's tenure.

I guess, in your mind, getting rid of McGee excuses them from their complete failure of fiduciary duties to the tune of 6 million dollars and the on-going millions due to their incompetence on future yearly budgets.

On the other hand, I would hope most people would want to look at who the board members were during McGee's stay and why they felt they had no responsibility to make sure the superintendent followed their wishes.

Elections are in November!


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