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Is the school board listening?

Original post made by Dan, Barron Park, on Apr 5, 2007

When the Palo Alto Unified School District management team spoke out last fall against the district's culture of mistrust, I saw several quotes from board members saying: "We are listening."

Now, just months before a new superintendent arrives, I see that the board has promoted Scott Laurence to a position that has been open for four years, with no open posting or opportunities for others to apply. Laurence may be a good principal, but using "being recruited" as a reason to promote him is insulting to the management team and to the community.

In fact, it looks like a thin cover for cronyism.

Does the board plan to make such accommodations for the next employee who says he/she is being recruited? This is not the way to manage a district, nor address its obvious cultural problems.

While the board claims to be listening, its recent actions indicate just the opposite.

(Note: The message above was published as a letter to the editor in the March 28 Palo Alto Weekly).

Comments (33)

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Posted by Phil Lanthrop
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 5, 2007 at 5:16 pm

They listen, just not with their ears.

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Posted by hear me now
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 5, 2007 at 5:48 pm

I have to agree that they indeed listen. Here is how:
If you say "I said so" they will not listen however if you say "my attorney said so" they will listen.

Like this comment
Posted by Big Ears
a resident of Southgate
on Apr 5, 2007 at 8:12 pm

The school board listens to a lot of people. There are a lot of different viewpoints out there.

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Posted by natasha
a resident of Meadow Park
on Apr 6, 2007 at 8:17 am

Yes, Dan, they are listening. It is pretty clear to whom. But WHY? Why was the eruption of the entire mangement team into an unprecedented revolt, clearly with the sympathy of a vast majority of Palo Altans, not enough to shake their trust in the person who caused the revolt? It's mystifying. Well, she's leaving in a couple of months and they will be stuck with the mess.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 6, 2007 at 11:04 am

The problem is not that they don't listen. They listen, and listen and listen. First they listen to the Superintendent, then they listen to the District Staff (two strikes against them at this point), then they listen to the public, and they listen again to the public, then they listen to the principals, then the teachers, then the students, then the student board members, then they listen to lawyers and they listen to the reporters, then they listen to the public again, then they listen to their cards and letters, then they listen to someone who shows up waiving money, then they listen to someone who shows up waiving data, then they listen to someone who shows up waiving lawyers, then they listen to someone who shows up waiving experts, then they listen to PIE, then they listen to politicians calling them, and then they call up board members and politicians from other areas and listen to them.... And then on goes the listening... They listen themselves into daffy paralysis and utter confusion.

What they don't do is give themselves a fighting chance by implementing a sound strategic planning process with a well articulated 1,2,3,4,5 year plan. Robust planning processes are NOT about setting a plan in stone and then ignoring everything that goes on in reality around us from there on out. Good planning processes are about understanding priorities, setting sound plans, setting contingency plans, setting up regular reviews and accountabilities, and disciplines adherance to the planning cycle. The plan becomes a roadmap, and then the board doesn't have to sit around taking the pulse of everyone every time someone says "BOO" at a board meeting.

The issues, prorities, important projects and goals and community input on those goals and priorities can be hashed out during the planning cycle. And then it becomes a roadmap for the board decision making. Then the board doesn't have to flap around aimlessly in the wind listening listening listening listening... Its death to the school district by listening. Lets focus on a strategic planning process already!!!

If we don't know how to do that, lets get some advice. I suggest they start with Melissa Baten Caswell to consult on how we should do that. She is (or was last year) the PTA president, and I believe she has strategic planning professional background, and she's smart, calm, and well respected.

Frankly, I think it doesn't matter who they get advice from, but they need to bring professional advice in, someone NOT beholden to MFC, not the current disappointing staff, and someone not tainted by several of the very severe trust and respect issues that have tainted almost all that's gone on in the last year.

Its time we get some reason and process and direction back in to this school district, and take the excessive 'listening' out of the equation.

Can they PLEASE also put MFC on administrative leave already? How much damage are they going to allow her to do before they finally take her key?

Like this comment
Posted by RWE
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 6, 2007 at 12:00 pm

Parent, You make some good points.

A few things about planning:

Good planning takes good foresight and vision that goes *beyond* the issues that are always discussed here. Our world is changing at warp speed, yet our schools are failing to adapt to that reality. Instead, we maintain administrative and electoral structures that came out of the mid-20th century - structures that mitigate solid, long range, or intermediate range planning.

How many BOE members get elected with a solid long-term view (realizing that long-term views will differ from candidate to candidate) as just one quality necessary for service? How many BOE members have an inkling of the larger problems facing education, and the region, before they get elected, and elaborate on those problems in a way that relects back on the job thier angling for? How many BOE members are queried in a substantive way during election time on these large issues? How many BOE members ever express closer working relations with the city as a priority, and absolutely necessary step that will *have* to be taken if our community is ever to manage good comprehensive planning?

Answers to the above can be summed by two words - i.e. "very few". Very few, if any, BOE members are compelled to think about these things because the BOE is mired in *local educational politics*, where the big questions are "how are we going to pay for infrastructure?", or "should we have language immersion?", etc. etc. Talk to most of the teachers and site administrators in the district about whether they think the BOE and executive administratino makes a big *positive* difference in their work of educating our children.

When was the last time you heard a BOE member or Superintendant insist on creating iinter-district efficiencies, *big ones*? I can't remember that happening, even once.

Regarding the structure of decision-making, the BOE operates "by habit" relative to the Superintendent. It's human nature to want to "get along" with the person you hire, and are supposed to manage. The special complication in present day educational administrative structure is that we have mostly non-educators - BOE's - deciding to hire someone who is assumed to be FAR more expert than they are. Think about the complications that creates from the planning side. Think about how the present day structure of educational administration - with Superintendents doing their 5-year [if that] dance from district to district (that's the career path) - mitigates *against* good planning.

Educational administration as it currently exists, with mobile careerists put at the helm by popularly elected folks who mostly know nothing of the realities of *everyday* in the classroom, is a disaster. the only thing that saves Palo Alto and much of this region from going over the edge - like lots of other districts already have - is the fantastically high educational level of our demographic, and the superb quality (in general) of our teaching and site administrative staff.

We need to find ways to reform a system that gets most of its inputs, and the large weight of authority, from a single job-hopping administrator, and a BOE that rotates members every other year. This *structural* problem is one of the reasons that we have BOE members listening and listening and listening - ad infinitum.

We need to find a way to "de-politicize" education, as much as possible. Th latter wouldn't be an easy task (and is impossible to do altogether), but until we accomplish larger strides in that direction, forget about efficient planning.

The real sweet spot for educational innovation is in the administration of education. We're just now beginning to see this truth recognized. It's going to be a while before we see substantive change, but until we do, ,public education will continue to be compromised - even in the better districts.

Like this comment
Posted by Wolf
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 6, 2007 at 2:58 pm

I also think parent made some good points. But they are completely different from what RWE picked up.

BOE listens to all these many voices, and indeed it is a bit confused. But in a sense this comes with the territory, listening to conflicting voices and advice, and the board and the administration had learned over time how to navigate among those voices.

What is new in this equation is -- ta dam -- THIS TOWN SQUARE FORUM. And I think this is what contributes to much of the confusion and the frustration, for the administration, the board, and the public.

Until Town Square, one needed a real drive to go and physically attend the board meetings. One needed a reasonable amount of knowledge to stand up and speak -- under his or her own name -- in front of the board -- and of the TV cameras. And one had limited amount of time -- at most 3 minutes every 2 weeks or so. Consequently, only people with real interest did it, and that filtered most of the noise. The next filter was the need for a sustained and broad popular interest: if one said whatever one did only once, it would tend to be quickly lost and forgotten. To create a serious and sustained interest for a broader issue (other than some personal grievance) one needed enough "warm bodies" to show up at multiple meetings and speak up -- otherwise it quickly became apparent that an issue did not have behind it more that the same one or two people showing up meeting after meeting. Finally, the public non-anonymous appearance forced people to do their homework, rather than to shoot from the hip on topics they might have no idea (but no lack of opinions) about. Consequently, it was reasonably easy for the board and administration to assign "public weight" to various speakers.

Compare this with post Town Square era. Suddenly it became easy to voice an opinion. This opinion is not necessarily publicly attributable, so it does not need to be thoughtful or considered. There is no time or frequency limit anymore, so one can post multiple opinions creating an impression of having a lot to say. There is no limit on masquerading as multiple posters, so it is easy to create an false impression of supposedly widely held position. In summary, it became a much more "noisy" discussion, which makes it very hard on the board or administration to pay serious attention to the voices here. Yet by not paying attention, the board rises the ire of the posters that "the board doesn't listen to them."

We often may think that discussion on this forum is a substitute for a public discussion with our elected officials, while creating at the same time a forum for easy sowing of random noise, for vocal and thoughtless dissent, and for easy and unaccountable berating/ridiculing of public officials. IT IS NOT.

I joined these forums since I had some time on my hands. Like many others I also found the anonymity helpful to express certain opinions which I knew will be unpopular. Yet after participating for few months I am coming to the conclusion that Bill Johnson did not do Palo Alto any favor by allowing anonymity here. It is my current opinion that this forum significantly lowered the level of public discourse in Palo Alto, and that the damage is not worth the occasional benefit that such anonymity provides.

Signing off, probably forever - Wolf.

Like this comment
Posted by Simon Firth
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 6, 2007 at 4:01 pm

Wolf (whomever you are!) -- I agree with you about anonymity and the problems it has caused here. I think we would be much better served by being required to use our real names, just as we are when we speak in meetings or write to an editor. Even being required to post only under a single screen name, as I’ve argued elsewhere, would help.

I would be sorry to see the Forum go, though. I think it does offer something valuable to the community and rather than lowering the level of public discourse, I see it as having actually enabled a lot of people to partake in it. If only they (and you!) could be persuaded to do it under their (your) own names – then it might be more civil and even more constructive than it is.

Personally, I'm very interested in public education and have communicated my concerns directly to the BOE in writing before this forum existed, and in letters to local newspapers. My work and family circumstances, however, don't allow me to attend board meetings at present. I'm sure I'm not alone in that and I’m grateful to have another place in which to express and explore my concerns.

Certainly, this forum is not a substitute for other kinds of engagement. But where else can you find a discussion of these issues in the same depth open to the same range of voices? Or the same level of debate?

I do sometimes get a chance to see broadcasts of our Board of Education meetings and what strikes me is how little debate they allow. Many questions are left hanging, never answered or never raised in the first place.

Maybe that's a good thing if the BOE is ever to get anything done, but what I was looking for in the city -- and what this forum allows when at its best -- is a place to hash out some of the real, and genuine dilemmas that face us as a community, especially when it comes to education. Is there somewhere else I can go to find that?

While some threads here have been poisoned by rash and inflammatory postings, a great number of others have been civil, informative and explanatory of issues.

This forum is not perfect. The loudest and most obdurate voices sometimes prevail -- but isn’t that true, too, of some of the people who are heard most often at public meetings?

Yes, there’s a lot of noise here, too, but there is also debate here that often rises to a quality that I think is worth the attention of our elected officials.

Like this comment
Posted by Eavesdropper
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 6, 2007 at 5:15 pm

Wolf, I'm sad to say that I wholeheartedly agree with your conclusion that "this forum significantly lowered the level of public discourse in Palo Alto, and that the damage is not worth the occasional benefit that such anonymity provides."

Like this comment
Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 7, 2007 at 12:30 am

Sorry guys,

I used to use my name in other online forums and I was harassed and cyberstalked. What you say hear doesn't just disappear, it's there to be Googled.

I do stick to one name here and I think limiting the ability to use sock puppets is a legit. form of control that would end some of the problems complained about here.

Like this comment
Posted by curious
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 7, 2007 at 8:32 am

What do you mean by "sock puppets?"

Like this comment
Posted by Phil Lanthrop
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 7, 2007 at 9:06 am

I think he means taking your shoes off....then your socks..... sticking your hands in your socks like puppets.... and talking at random intervals to people like you and me.... most people can have up to ten characters, although this may vary with age..... i learned this on wikipedia...sock puppets

Like this comment
Posted by Phil Lanthrop
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 7, 2007 at 9:09 am

So long
Its been good to know ya
so long
its been good to know ya
this dusty old dust is gettin my home
and I must be driftin along

Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 7, 2007 at 9:47 am

This is developing into an interesting discussion which probably wouldn't happen if we all used our own names. I tend to go by one of the most ambiguous nom de plumes used here and since it is used by so many, it is hard to know if one parent is the same as the parent used five posts or whatever ago. It is probably wrong of me but it is a habit I have got into and without giving it too much thought I just do it. The reason I started to become anon was to prevent my children being embarrassed by what I wrote. I also gave opinions on other threads with my own name and consequently was questioned about my thoughts when I ran into acquaintainces. I didn't really mind that much until I got into a big discussion with someone who really wanted to argue for the sake of arguing and it actually upset me. I don't like arguing and I don't like people harrassing me for my opinions. Therefore, it is much better to remain anon so that you can go to local events without having to enter these type of discussions at a time which is incovenient. I suppose I could do as many people do and think up a name which I use all the time, I just haven't done it. But then there is still the problem of the one anon name appearing on different threads and a personality problem could arise which would make someone disagree with you on a topic completely different from another topic you have disagreed with and your opinion is weighted differently as a consequence.

On the whole, with few exceptions, I think that remaining anon is just a plus to this forum. By losing the ability to enter any and every discussion in a purely anon persona from any other used before makes me feel that I can enter any discussion on any topic and be listened to for what I have to say rather than for who I am.

Parent (one of many)

Like this comment
Posted by Hate Thy Neighbor
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 7, 2007 at 12:31 pm

Anonymity gives people freedom to be rude, cutting, belittling, shrill, etc. I walk around town wondering how many of the friendly, polite people I see in person are the hostile, arrogant people who post here. I feel more distrustful when I'm out in public.

I'm not condemning everyone who posts here anonymously. There are sincere and respectful dialogs here, but the lasting memories are of the people who come here to shoot off their mouths with abandon. It's poisonous.

Like this comment
Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 7, 2007 at 1:39 pm

Anonymity isn't guaranteed, you know. With me, what you see is what you get. Enough so, that one person identified me easily. My anonymity here is because I'm pretty anonymous out in the real world as well.

There's an interesting discussion over at Salon about how they're now requiring registration for their letters--in part because women writers get such abusive mail. I've seen all sorts of sexual stereotyping occur online. I appreciate that this forum is moderated, but even so I find it more productive to be gender-neutral online. Certain assumptions don't get made.

Like this comment
Posted by Winslow Arbenaugh
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 7, 2007 at 2:04 pm

Hate, what is it about others "shooting their mouths off" that you don't like? I'm curious?

That also goes for Wolf.

It's quite interesting to note _who_ objects to anonymity in these forums. Without mentioning names, the very people who are complaining above have during many forum discussions been the _most_ acerbic.

There are oftimes good reasons for maintaining anonymity. For instance, how many teachers and staff members would have been willing to offer up utheir names publicly when the "management team" issues were raised? A few did, but it's notable that those who did were in agreement with what had been going on, and not a part of the larger majority who were appalled at what had transpired. Sometimes being able to maintain yuor job and feed a family outweighs the desire for perfect transparency.

Frankly, it's best not to pay attention to the 'signature' in a forum like this. What difference does it make if someone posts thoughtful ideas anonymously? We've all met our share of rude, hateful people in public forums. Life is difficult.

What advantage does it bring for someone to post with their real name, _unless_ they have nothing to lose from such public exposure?

I'm aware of at least four individuals who have been deeply involved in one or another private or public initiative who would have seriously compromised their public positions if they'd posted with their real name.

I suppose some would now take to judging those individuals, calling them less-than-truthful persons, as if to deny the fact that _everyone_ dodges the fringe of pure feeling to negotiate settlement with exaggeration, slight distortion, etc. etc. Who speaks with perfect transparency, all the time? Name one person who does that. Read

There are many sides to an argument; there are many solutions to most problems; sometimes it's not possible to express all of the things that one feels need to be said to gain an optimal solution.

Forums like this are one more possible way to help inform. Those that are most frustrated by what happens here are most likely those who have been frustrated by the emergence of new ideas, and transparency.

Also, when getting into forums like this, it's best to realize that contributors _are_ going to weigh in differently than they otherwise would. There are disadvatages and benefits to that; just as there are in face-to-face communication, and when contributors choose to identify themselves.

There is a beauty to anonymity - permitting as it does statements and actions that would often otherwise not be expressed. What's wrong with that?

Why are counseling hotlines anonymous? Think about how anonymity _enables_ those in trouble, in that case - and others like it.

if someone comes off a bit harsh in a forum, don't answer in kind; ignore her; or turn her rudeness on its head. Be creative. Have fun. After all, nobody knows your name.

Like this comment
Posted by DFT
a resident of another community
on Apr 7, 2007 at 4:15 pm

Eavesdropper says I'm sad to say that I wholeheartedly agree with your conclusion that "this forum significantly lowered the level of public discourse in Palo Alto, and that the damage is not worth the occasional benefit that such anonymity provides."

I also agree. It only takes one or two trolls to make a forum useless. They foul the water. But like SPAM, it's difficult for the individual to do anything about it.
I don't know why the Weekly tolerates it. They could remove trash postings but for some reason they arent doing it. Maybe they count success by the number of postings, even when it is mostly by one person.
The troll returns, Anna Mike JL Jeremy Loski Periwinkle Publicus Sanford RWE Veritas Winslow Arbenaugh and Naysayer are one troll. And their new incarnation is the fictitious Phil Lanthrop. DON'T FEED the TROLL.

Like this comment
Posted by DFT's Mama
a resident of another community
on Apr 7, 2007 at 4:53 pm

DFT, How many times have you been told not to lie? There's no popcorn for you tonight, and no more playing with your computer. My friends in the neighborhood are telling me that you have become a troll. Is that true?

Like this comment
Posted by Anon Ok
a resident of Escondido School
on Apr 7, 2007 at 9:02 pm

I agree that the PAUSD is not listening to its public when it does not open up a top spot in a more competitive fashion in light of the recent management issues. Perhaps there is more information of which we are not aware, but it does look like they did not want to lose one employee so they ditched all the good faith that they were building with both the management team and the public. As for the posters worred about the negative effects of anonymity, I, too, worry--but about those who would write comments such as "signing off, probably forever," "trolls," and "lowered the level of public discourse." Sign off, but don't threaten us that you are going to, hammer away the point without attacking the person, and please do not estimate your discourse so highly.

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Posted by Anon OK Too
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 9, 2007 at 10:27 am

I, too, think those complaining the loudest about the level of discourse on this forum are often those who have themselves brought it to the lowest level. Usually I find if someone reasonable gets out of hand with a specific post, a gentle reminder is enough to bring the conversation back. I've read some very thought provoking debate on many issues on this forum. Especially for time-strapped parents, the ability to have ongoing discussions about school issues is, I think, an advantage.

Like this comment
Posted by KS
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 9, 2007 at 11:07 am

It is my current opinion that this forum significantly lowered the level of public discourse in Palo Alto, and that the damage is not worth the occasional benefit that such anonymity provides.

Signing off, probably forever - Wolf.

Hmm, wonder why Palo Alto Online staff had to edit/remove these "Wolf" posts. Pot, meet Kettle.

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] Web Link

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff] Web Link

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff] Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 9, 2007 at 2:11 pm


I've had a couple of online disagreements with Wolf myself and I've also noticed a certain less-than-dimplomatic quality to some of his replies. But maybe that's part of what he doesn't like--not just what others post, but what he posts. Or how he posts. Maybe it is unproductive for him.

Online communication heightens some characteristics and subdues others, we may or may not like our own online persona and that, I think, affects what we think of online forums.

Like this comment
Posted by Phil Lanthrop
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 10, 2007 at 3:45 pm

Hey case your interested... there was an article in today (or yesterdays) london guardian about the subject you've been recently addressing....pertinent info....

Like this comment
Posted by Phil Lanthrop
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 10, 2007 at 3:45 pm

Hey case your interested... there was an article in today (or yesterdays) london guardian about the subject you've been recently addressing....pertinent info....

Like this comment
Posted by Thanks, Phil
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 10, 2007 at 11:42 pm

Web Link

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Posted by Brit
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 11, 2007 at 8:31 am

Very interesting article and should be read by many on this forum.

Oh, and just to let you know, those of us from across the pond call the Guardian the Manchester Guardian, not the London Guardian. It used to be a regional newspaper which became national. It is different from other British nationals because it writes from the prospective of the north of England rather than the other nationals which are written as London being the centre of the universe (or Britain anyway).

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Posted by Phil Lanthrop
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 11, 2007 at 8:43 am

...your very welcome.....thanks for making it easier to access....
glad i could do something remotely constructive....
and thanks for the info Brit....Manchester Guardian sounds okay to me....

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Posted by occasional participant who dislikes the negativism of some frequent contributors
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Apr 12, 2007 at 4:49 am

I like that there is a community forum at paloaltoonline.

I consider its structure a work in progress, as I think it currently allows (encourages?) snide, poisonous-pen types to hijack the tenor of otherwise civil and thoughtful discussions. I look forward to its further evolution.

I'm sure there are many examples of good additional features in online community forums that, if adopted here, might encourage useability and civility. I think some features at are worth looking at:

1.) volunteer "member" moderators are randomly assigned to rank posts, e.g., for relevance, and an average numerical score is assigned to each post as a result.

Then, as a reader, I can set my filter level to only display posts of a certain score or better. This allows me to filter out the poisonous personalities, trolls, wise-acres, etc., if I so choose: a poster to a thread is not guaranteed to be read by all readers, and especially not if they are anti-social or off-topic.

2.) responses to individual posts can "tree" out into seperate discussion threads.

This allows me to skip tangential discussion threads.

Like this comment
Posted by Tyler Hanley
digital editor of Palo Alto Online
on Apr 12, 2007 at 4:47 pm

Tyler Hanley is a registered user.

Thanks to all for the feedback and suggestions regarding Town Square. This is a work in progress and an experiment of sorts, and we will be making changes that we hope will improve the experience for the majority of well-intended users. We are especially focused on ways to discourage the posting of disrespectful, sarcastic and other kinds of comments that drive others away. Keep suggesting ideas, so we can take them into consideration as we make changes to the site.

Like this comment
Posted by peter
a resident of Southgate
on Apr 12, 2007 at 8:11 pm

This morning I posted a web link to a column that Jon Carroll wrote in this morning's Chronicle as a new topic. I see that it would better have been posted in this thread, so here it is. It's about behavior in forums like this, and is based on the years of experience on the Well, the grandparent of all such discussion groups.

Web Link

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Posted by To Tyler
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 14, 2007 at 12:17 pm

Thanks Tyler.

I like the idea of being able to "rate" posters, and to make posters use the SAME "alias" through registration. But, I do not want anyone deleted for any reason. I want to see why posters are being "rated".

I have seen too many items deleted for reasons I cannot fathom to support the deletion of any item, unless it is a post which endangers someone by giving "outing" somebody's address etc.

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Posted by DFT
a resident of another community
on Sep 27, 2007 at 2:41 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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