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Beloved Former Paly Principal Dresses Down School Board and Superintendent Over PR Hire

Original post made by Silence Dogood, Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Apr 10, 2013

Buried in the "packet" for last night's school board meeting was a letter from Sandra Pearson, the former Principal of Paly. In her letter, Pearson dressed down the Board and the senior district staff for their decision to hire a Public Relations person at an annual salary of $150,000.

Pearson stated that she was "puzzled and dismayed" by the decision to hire a PR officer, arguing that public communication is the job of the senior staff. According to Pearson, the Superintendent is "hired to represent the District," and it is "unnecessary to layer another person in the mix." Rather, she urged the board to "hold your administrators responsible for communicating effectively."

Pearson also recalled that during an earlier period of austerity the PR officer was the first person to be fired as unnecessary, a decision she agreed with, and she argued that the district had much better things on which to spend $150K, urging the board to,"Ask any teacher how $150,000 might be used to support teaching and learning in the classroom. I doubt you will find any who would opt for a communications officer."

Pearson's letter to the Board was sent nearly a month ago on March 17. It mysteriously turned up as an attachment to the packet for last night's meeting. There was no discussion of the PR hire and there was no mention of the letter.

Pearson's views echoed those of many community members who objected to the hiring ofa PR officer in the wake of the recent district civil rights scandals. The district recently posted a job advertisement for the PR officer, in which it solicited applicants who had a background in fields that included "marketing" and listed as a primary job responsibility to "promote a community climate of support for the district" and to "cultivate" stories in media that portray the district in a positive light."

Here is a link to Pearson's letter: Web Link

The full text of the letter is below.

To : Dana Tom, President, Board of Education
Barb Mitchell, Camille Townsend, Mellissa Baten-Caswell, Heidi Emberling
Date: March 17. 2013

I served as Principal of Palo Alto High from 1987 to 1994 and again from 2002-2004.
Since retiring, I have chosen to remain silent on PAUSD issues. My husband and I have
lived on Stanford campus for nearly 45 years, and we have continuously supported our
schools. Our two daughters went through the public school system, and we now have
grandchildren who will benefit from Palo Alto’s good schools. We have a long and
profound interest in your allocating school resources wisely.

When suddenly we experience higher than expected tax revenues, the generous parent
community(PIE) raises over $4 million for the schools, or an anonymous donor
contributes millions of dollars for facilities, it is of utmost importance to recognize the
value of community support. Establishing trust and transparency are critical aspects of
leadership within our District if we expect to parents and community members to
continue to support our schools.

Your decision to create a $150,000 communications officer has puzzled and dismayed
me. If the administrators are fulfilling their job responsibilities, they are the ones in the
best position to communicate with the public. They are inside the issues. They are hired
to represent the District. It is unnecessary to layer another person in the mix. When I was
principal in the District, we had a communications officer. That position appropriately
was one of the first to be eliminated when cuts had to be made. I believe you are making
a mistake to allocate precious resources for a communications officer. I urge you to hold
your administrators responsible for communicating effectively.

Ask any teacher how $150,000 might be used to support teaching and learning in the
classroom. I doubt you will find any who would opt for a communications officer.

Sandra Pearson
691 Mirada Ave.
Stanford, Ca. 94305

Comments (28)

Posted by Shame on PAUSD admin. and board
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 10, 2013 at 10:21 pm

Thank you Sandra Pearson for saying what needs to be said. I am so dismayed with everything that has transpired recently with the School Board and the administrators. Asking the district to hire what is essentially a PR person to put a positive spin on the shenanigans of Kevin Skelly and company is shameful. Ms. Pearson is calling for transparency just as the members of WCDBPA have been calling for. It is now time to say ENOUGH! It is time for that investigation that Ken Dauber has been advocating for. We indeed can do WAY better in Palo Alto.

Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 10, 2013 at 10:49 pm

Sandra Pearson is 100% correct.

Posted by village fool
a resident of another community
on Apr 10, 2013 at 11:57 pm

I do not know if the 150k PR postion was manned, already. I do not know if the following posting is an addition to the 150k postition discussed? - Web Link

Posted by taxpayer
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 11, 2013 at 12:06 am

I believe the school district has to hire a PR person just to handle the negative impact that WCDBPA is having on our schools and our town.
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Paly Alum
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 11, 2013 at 12:35 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by blame game
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 11, 2013 at 7:31 am

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] WCDB formed to address these issues, and now we have finals before break, a homework policy, and counseling reform at Gunn. In only 2 years we have progress on issues that have been stuck and made no progress ever since I can remember and I have lived here for 40 years.

Blaming WCDB for the district's bad decision to hire a PR person is silly and shooting the messenger. It's not even shooting the right messenger, since without the Weekly WCDB would be irrelevant and no one would ever have heard of it. It's because the Weekly covers the issues that WCDB raises that they are community issues. It's because the Weekly reported on the bullying story, which it seems that WCDB did not have any role in before the fact (correct me if I am wrong). The Weekly makes a lot of freedom of information requests, catches Skelly in constant lies and cover-ups, and tries to hold the board responsible. Sounds like what a paper should do. If we had less lying, less cover-ups, and more responsibility we wouldn't need a PR officer. WCDB has nothing to do with it. Kudos to the Weekly for holding their feet to the fire.

Posted by Credit game?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 11, 2013 at 8:17 am

Blame game - I think you're giving all the credit for the positive changes in the district to WCDB... and that's simply not true.

Posted by blame game
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 11, 2013 at 9:01 am

I think I just gave much of the credit to the Weekly. You are so blinded by irrational bias against these good citizens who give totally selflessly of their time to find and analyze data, suggest policies, serve on committees (homework and Gunn counseling), and so forth that you can't give them any credit for being the important impetus to change that they have been. They were willing to tell the truth even though it earned them a kind of public attack usually reserved for criminals. In fact, I will venture to say that Ken Dauber has been more criticized, and unfairly so, than Kevin Skelly [portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff] failed at his job. He should have been fired just for failing to tell the board about two separate OCR investigations and settlements. That's it, end of subject. He should have been let go. Everyone knows that the reason he hasn't been is that the board is spineless and inept [portion removed].

Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 11, 2013 at 10:29 am

Since Ms. Pearson is not a current administrator, let me give an fyi from someone who came in at the tail end of her professional work in the school district: this clearly was an outstanding professional school administrator and I respect her opinion.
Separately, I also oppose the hiring of a 150K/year + benefits PR person and think these minor tasks are included in the luxury position of our PAUSD administrator. This is an outrage to the taxpayers. Board of Ed, this was not your finest hour to vote for this ridiculous position of PR person.

Posted by Shame on PAUSD admin. and board
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 11, 2013 at 11:40 am

@ Blame Game: What a great response!!!

@ Credit game? Are you serious? Without help from Ken Dauber and some of the people from WCDBPA perhaps some of the positives would have never come about. WCDBPA has never tried to take sole credit for any of the positive changes that have come about through collaboration with other people in the community who are equally caring but just haven't found it necessary to publicly align with WCDBPA.

I am not a member of WCDBPA but I proudly cast my ballot for Ken. I am currently rethinking whether it would make sense for me to jump on board the WCDBPA bandwagon as they seem to be one of the few community groups that is on an upward trajectory.

The longer Skelly is on board the worse this is going to get. I shudder to think of what the next revelation will be from Skelly that he withheld from the board (and the taxpayers of PA) because he was "too embarrassed". At the very least, the board needs to review his contract extension as it was rewarded without their knowledge of his deceptions.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by times change
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 11, 2013 at 12:15 pm

When Pearson agreed with the removal of the PR position during the last period of austerity, WCDBPA wasn't there. Since the new communication role is dealing with this one group who are effectively abusing process, the PR position is now a requirement. The cost of dealing with PPRs alone is sufficient to need this position.

Posted by Wow
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 11, 2013 at 12:30 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]
(1) public record requests are not an abuse of process, they are a tool provided by the state of California for citizens lift the veil of secrecy on the public's business; (2) WCDBPA hasn't sent a request in nearly a year, since they exposed the Superintendent's flouting of the school board's direction on Gunn counseling; and (3) PAUSD has handled public record requests with existing staff or part-time help. The Weekly and other journalists are filing public records requests (because they learn important and otherwise secret information by doing so), but it doesn't play as well to attack the press.

The truth is that this PR person has two jobs, both of them evident from the job description. The first is to boost community support for the superintendent and the board by planting positive stories in the press. The second is to provide a buffer between the superintendent and the press (that's the "tact and discretion" part of the job description.

Pearson is asking the right question: why does the board think that the highest and best use of $150k in taxpayer money is for PR?

Posted by blame game
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 11, 2013 at 12:46 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by times change
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 11, 2013 at 1:20 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] No one is saying they aren't allowed to make the requests and waste district time. However the cost to manage these requests and deal with the astonishing amount of emails, etc. needs to be met somewhere.
Fishing expeditions are an abuse of process. It doesn't mean WCDBPA can't continue to do them as it is their right. Hence the requirement for a communications officer. Pearson must not realize the effort involved.

Posted by Wow
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 11, 2013 at 2:45 pm

"times change" is misinformed. First, WCDBPA hasn't done a public records request in nearly a year, so using WCDBPA to justify a PR person (or as "times change" so delicately puts it, a "communications officer") is just obfuscation. Even the public records requests from the press (which "times change" is careful not to criticize) are not nearly so burdensome as to require a full-time, $150k "officer".

No, the real job of the PR officer is PR: trying to produce a positive impression of the board and superintendent in the press, and trying to run interference for a superintendent who regularly creates crises of governance and legal compliance. That, unlike responding to public records requests, is definitely a full-time job.

Posted by Credibility Gap
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 11, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Times, why are you actively spreading lies and disinformation about WBBD? They haven't filed any requests in A YEAR. [Portion removed.] The WEEKLY has filed some. Know why? Because Skelly/Young/Reynolds lack transparency and are caught out by their PRAs. Catching this crowd in a lie is like shooting fish in a barrel. So long as we're talking about fishing, I am an accomplished fisherman and I want to know when "fishing expedition" became a metaphor for waste of time. Let me assure you when someone who knows how to fish goes fishing they know where the fish are, what kind of fish there are, how many fish there are, and how to tie the right fly. Maybe the district should stop stocking the pond, as my daddy used to say.

Posted by Paly parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 11, 2013 at 4:36 pm

I have a lot of respect for Sandra. I do wonder what has become of our school board.

Posted by Eric Blair
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 11, 2013 at 5:29 pm

I don't think that hiring a communications officer will garner the public support the district is seeking. The public wants the board to perform their proper leadership role in governing our district. Currently they act as a powerless advisory board to the superintendent as evidenced by no action taken in response to the cover up of the two OCR cases by the superintendent. If there was strong leadership and insistence on transparency from staff they would garner the public support they desire. The public is too savvy to be swayed by a fancy PR program. I agree with Sandra Pearson that we have higher priorities and that administrators ahould be capable of delivering clear communications.

Posted by Duveneck dad
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 12, 2013 at 9:07 am

I donate a hefty chunk of change each year to PIE. I am not too happy that the school board is spending money on things like PR that could be spent on the things we are missing in our schools. PE, art, and music come to mind. The bargain is that we give generously through taxes and PIE, and the school district spends it on things that benefit our kids. Breaking that bargain like this is a very bad idea for public support. And yes, I get the irony that building public support is the reason for this PR spending.

Posted by Shame on PAUSD admin. and board
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 12, 2013 at 10:50 am

@ Duveneck Dad: I, too, have been very generous in my donations to PIE. I most likely will not donate in the next couple of years as I think I need to save my money to help get some new Board Members inboard in 2014. I hope that the scourge of Skelly and his minions will be gone by then. The only board member that I held up some hope for to demand transparency and better leadership from the top has sorely disappointed me. That one was Melissa. The rest of the bunch appear to be spineless lackeys who when Skelly says "jump" they ask "how high?" I Have no respect for any of the current board.

Money talks. In this case, my money says bye-bye. I refuse to support the lies and deception of the current administration and board.

Posted by Wow
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 15, 2013 at 8:16 am

So what was the letter doing in the packet anyway? Was it released by mistake? It seemed to have no purpose there. Did the staff post it accidentally? That seems likely. Perhaps this is another communications fail for which the new P.R. handler will be responsible. Maybe this is how they are handling PRAs now, by just posting them in random locations on the district website and letting the public stumble on them, like a treasure hunt.

Posted by village fool
a resident of another community
on Apr 16, 2013 at 1:04 am

@Wow - That is an excellent question! If you'll ever get the answer, would you kindly start a new thread, share the answer? or post the answer in a "high traffic", current thread?

Posted by Zeev Wurman
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 16, 2013 at 4:24 pm

10-15 years ago, all letters to the board were regularly attached at the end of each board packet. At certain point the board must have decided that the letters create too much dissent, or something along these lines, so the practice stopped.

Still, until late 1990s, those "in the know" would routinely end their communication with the board with the phrase "please attach this letter to the board's permanent record" which would, at least then, cause those particular letters to be attached to the board packet.

My guess is that Sandra assumed her letter would be attached to the board packet, as was routine in her days. When it was not, she wrote to the board and requested that her letter be attached to the board packet.

In my personal opinion, routinely not publishing letters directed to the whole board (as opposed to those directed to a single member of the board) may be, perhaps, one of the reasons the board suddenly feels it needs a PR person ...

Posted by Do more Sandra
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 16, 2013 at 8:43 pm


Get in the game. You know that the exodus of principals and other administrators in Kevin Skelly's six years is but one of many signs of a broken system. The suicides were an obvious sign that the board and senior leadership were incompetent. These latest special ed and OCR debacles should be the final straw. I cannot think of another nearby district whose citizens would allow this to continue. The board is unwilling to act. It's time to recall them. It's time to place Skelly and Young on administrative leave. Don't dip your toe in the water with a criticism of an obvious bad idea, the $150K of worthless PR, jump in and lead your community right now.

Posted by Wow
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 16, 2013 at 9:29 pm

agree with Do More. Sandra Pearson was the finest principal Paly ever had. She would make a wonderful interim superintendent. She has integrity, she cares about kids, and she knows her way around a board meeting. Please Sandra, save us. Also, Susie Richardson. Please help us. Four CIVIL RIGHTS BULLYING COMPLAINTS? We need real, independent leadership.

Posted by parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 16, 2013 at 11:08 pm

Sandra Pearson was an excellent principal. However, during her tenure there were a few suicides at Paly, also on the tracks. Was this her fault? No. The WCDBPA folks want Dr. Skelly to step down or be fired because of the suicides at Gunn 3 years ago. They blame stress from schools. They blame the lack of a TA system at Gunn. Paly had a TA system. I wonder if people would think this would make her incompetent to serve as superintendent?
Web Link

On the other hand, I wouldn't hold one person responsible for the suicides or for any of the bullying/harassment that goes on. I would hold the parents, the community and the schools responsible because we are not raising our children to be tolerant, empathetic, or accountable So rather than asking parents to give up custody of their children, or the community to disband, or for the schools to disintegrate, I would work towards making the situation better, starting with teaching kids when they are two and three, what empathy and tolerance is all about,

It seems to me that some people in this community feel all the problems would be made better by having the superintendent and others step down or be fired. I think the problem is much more complicated than that. Yes, OCR complaints have been filed. I think there has been counseling involved in this. If every case of discrimination/harassment/bullying that happens every day in every district and every community and business across this country and the world there would be millions of these complaints. We are all responsible for this. It's easier, however, to lay blame on someone else than to hold ourselves accountable for our behaviors and the behaviors of our children.

Posted by Observer
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 17, 2013 at 6:40 am

When I read posts like @parent's, I see how we have gotten ourselves into this through-the-looking-glass situation in which we accept professional school leadership that just isn't doing a good job. "Parent" is trying to turn a quite straightforward and not uncommon problem -- we have hired people who it turns out aren't really up to the job -- into a "complicated" problem in which the "community" is not "holding ourselves accountable" for teaching kids about about empathy and tolerance when they are "two and three" (!). There are a few inconvenient facts in her way, like OCR findings that these administrators violated the civil rights of a disabled child and didn't follow 504 procedures, and now more complaints -- but she handles those by alluding to some unexplained "counseling" that caused parents to seek (and get) federal protection rather than realizing that their problems were their own fault.
The rest of the stuff about suicide is a pretty nasty effort to smear both WCDBPA (which didn't blame anyone for the suicides but along with many others called for a stronger response to the tragedies) and Sandra Pearson.
Bottom line: getting kids to be empathetic and tolerant is an age-old task, shared by parents, schools, and the whole community. Following federal civil rights laws and clear procedures, on the other hand, is a straightforward task that our school leadership seems unable to manage. Holding them accountable for that isn't a mistake, it's the only thing that will work. Thank you Sandra Pearson for your efforts in that direction.

Posted by Wow
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 17, 2013 at 7:42 am

"parent from Paly who sounds a lot like a particular lady from Marin" failed to tell anyone that in the link she posted about the 2003 Paly suicides, much of the very interesting article was about the role played by academic stress in suicidal thoughts and the effort that was then starting up within the community to take a hard look at that issue:

"The pressure to achieve and excel is omnipresent at the school known as Paly and situated in the shadow of Stanford University. Denise Clark Pope, a lecturer in the education department at Stanford and author of a book on stressed-out high school students, said there is irrefutable evidence that teenagers -- especially in high-achieving, wealthy areas like Palo Alto -- are feeling too much pressure.

"It's leading to health risks, such as (thoughts about) suicide, ulcers and anxiety," she said.
A study released in June by the Lucile Packard Foundation found that more than a quarter of 460 parents surveyed in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties were moderately or very concerned about their child feeling sad or depressed and that more than 10 percent reported their preteens had thoughts of suicide.

Philippe Rey, associate director of Adolescent Counseling Services, a nonprofit organization that works in Palo Alto schools, said for those already suffering from mental illness, the pressure of a community like Palo Alto can be almost unbearable.

Students themselves readily recognize the stress they feel. In a poll conducted by the school paper shortly after the first Paly student committed suicide, a third of 756 students said they felt very stressed and an additional 44 percent said they were somewhat stressed."

Read more: Web Link

Why did the Paly community focus in part on academic stress after the 2003 suicides? Because as Phillipe Rey, still the head of ACS, says in the article, "for those already suffering from mental illness, the pressure of a community like Palo Alto can be almost unbearable."

That is the same thing that WCDBPA has been saying for the last 2 years. It is the same thing that the PSN drafting committee said. It is common sense. Everyone but "parent from Paly who sounds a lot like a particular lady from Marin" understands this intuitively -- putting kids who are vulnerable under extreme stress can make them sicker and if they are impulsive, lead to terrible results.

Bullying is a kind of stress, as is sexual assault, as is too much academic pressure. There are other environmental stressors. Suicide is an extreme symptom of depression, and depression is exacerbated by environmental stressors. The point is that environmental stressors play a role in mental health. If you want to argue that environmental stressors play no role in mental health then CITE YOUR EVIDENCE FOR THAT IDEA. Otherwise you are just blabbering with no evidence and no one should listen to you at all.

Sandra Pearson is a wonderful principal. If you had ever even had a child at Paly which I strongly suspect you did not then you would know that.

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