Editorial: Cooling off needed in school district | April 18, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - April 18, 2007

Editorial: Cooling off needed in school district

All sides need to take some deep breaths and push forward with the process to rebuild district communications processes and trust

New demands this week for the immediate resignation of Superintendent Mary Frances Callan and rescinding of the appointment of Scott Laurence to assistant superintendent bring to a head a crisis that could wreck a fledging "healing" process.

The demands and circumstances that led up to them threaten any progress that has been made through a mediated dialogue process using outside consultants, headed by Palo Alto resident Geoff Ball and his Los Altos-based Geoff Ball and Associates.

Leaders of the new Palo Alto Management Association (PAMA) delivered an ultimatum to the school board in which they said they could not continue with the trust-building "organizational development" process unless the district meets conditions (see story in Wednesday's Weekly and on www.PaloAltoOnline.com).

The most extreme are that Callan resign immediately rather than serve through the end of the school year and that the school board rescind it's surprise appointment in mid-March of Laurence to a newly re-created position of assistant superintendent.

Laurence, principal at Palo Alto High, was being considered for another job in another district when the school board promoted him to the position, which had been vacant five years.

That appointment, justified or not, hit the trust-building process at the worst of all possible times, just as people from both sides — school board members and administrator Scott Bowers and the mid-level managers' representatives — were getting to know each other and relax into the process.

The announcement threw the process into turmoil and convinced mid-level managers involved that nothing was changing at the board level.

It was seen, as the Weekly observed editorially on March 21, as "precisely the kind of action about which the principals and middle managers so desperately complained in the past year — and which pushed them to form the protective shell of PAMA." The appointment was taken up at a PAMA Executive Board meeting March 23. The outcome is now evident.

It is also clear that the school board reacted in a seemingly near-panic mode, or at least in extreme urgency, at the thought of losing Laurence at a time when it was about to lose its superintendent and business manager (after Jerry Matranga also announced his planned departure from the district).

The situation, as we said before, does not reflect directly on Laurence but on the process and the timing involved in what has become a debacle. It is distressing that the school board leadership seems largely oblivious to the cause-and-effect nature of its actions in promoting Laurence, who had been a strong supporter of Callan within the middle-management ranks. Rumors spread that the appointment was a reward for his support, but we have found no evidence of that.

As for PAMA's new conditions, we believe the demand for Callan's immediate resignation to be unreasonable and hope the PAMA leaders reconsider that position. She has announced that she plans to retire after the school year ends. Let's move on.

Management style, communication and "trust" issues aside, there are many good things she has done for the district, including effectively spearheading the effort to prevent the state from appropriating millions of dollars from "basic aid" school districts several years ago.

As for Laurence, perhaps a compromise could turn down the heat a bit. Given his solid record as principal at both Gunn and Palo Alto high schools, he is a logical choice for an assistant administrator at the district level during a difficult time of transition, when every scrap of institutional memory and knowledge of the district is of value.

Perhaps the school board could make the appointment a provisional one, subject to ratification next fall after a new superintendent is in place. This would give the staff and board time to develop a job description, and for Laurence to build on his base of professional respect and personal friendships within the district.

It might also provide time for the school board majority to wake up and smell the crisis.

It is a tragedy and disservice to our children to see the leadership of a fine school district descend further into a meltdown scenario.






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