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What should our school board do?

Original post made by Diana Diamond, Palo Alto Online blogger, on Oct 17, 2006

The Palo Alto School District has a problem, and it needs to be solved sooner rather than later. Only the board can solve it.

On Sept. 6 a “middle management” memo was written complaining about several issues – lack of trust between the middle and upper management, pay and benefit inequities, consistency of practice, etc. Middle managers are principals, assistant principals, program coordinators and directors and school psychologists. That memo was published on the Weekly’s Web site. Since then a big debate has emerged in town over who is right, who is wrong, and whether Superintendent Mary Frances Callan, who has been here since 2001, needs to go.

This is what I have learned so far from a number of conversations. The issue for the middle managers is really not about pay scales, vacation time and benefits, it is about a lack of trust between Callan and middle management, and a lack of communication between the senior managers (Callan, Associate Superintendents Marilyn Cook and Jerry Matranga, and Assistant Superintendent Scott Bowers) and middle managers. It’s also about a perceived lack of leadership from Callan — leadership is being defined here as a lack of vision and academic inspiration.

The board is apparently divided in its support by Callan, and reportedly split 3-2 — but that could change. Three former board members (JohnBarton, John Tuomy and Cathy Kroymann) wrote a letter to the editor when this first erupted praising Callan and the other three, calling them “superb administrators who deserve our complete confidence,” and saying issues like this should not be aired in public. That letter sounded to me like they were saying, “Don’t air our dirty linen in public." It may have hurt more than helped Callan.

Ultimately, it is up to the board to decide what to do to solve this problem. No one else can. If the issue is trust, certainly Callan cannot “investigate” whether people trust her; this is clearly a board probe. If the issue is leadership style, ditto.

I sense board members are angry, and worried about the district’s reputation and future. The feelings are strong at the board level, and among some middle managers. And probably Callan is angry too.

The board is considering hiring an outside person to objectively analyze this issue, to quantify and qualify who feels what about whom. That may be in order, but if the board authorizes such an analysis, I would suggest that it be completed sooner rather than later. Too many parents/teachers/staff/board members have been involved to let this continue to simmer. And we all should keep in mind that any outside consultant can only tell the board what people think, but that person cannot make a decision.

The board cannot take a lot of time to solve this problem. It needs to be cautious but the problem cannot be tossed aside or forgotten. Callan just entered into another four-year contract, but these issues have been simmering, some say from the time she arrived, while others say they surfaced two years ago.

My sense is that all five board members are concerned; my concern is that they need to be as unbiased and objective in finding out what really is wrong and devote full attention to this issue. No longer can the board simply ask, “Can’t we all get along?”

Yes, only the board can solve this problem. Good luck!

Comments (5)

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Posted by RWE
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 18, 2006 at 1:05 am

Yours is a pretty good summary. Can you tell us what direction the current 3-2 PAUSD board split falls - i.e. staying with Callan, or relieveing her of administrative responsibility?

I've been encouraged by Gail Price' courage, and forthrightness. She has been the lone voice on the board daring to simply report what the board is hearing from the public. I trust that Barb Mitchell and Dana Tom understand how important it will be to PAUSD to get this situation under control, and get someone in at 25 Churchill who can LEAD. I'm especially interested in Dana Tom's stance, as he campaigned on "improving district communication".

As for Many Lowell and Camille Townsend, it's hard to say. Will they have the courage to depose someone that they have been working closely with for four years? That won't be easy, because doing so is to admit to some political culpability.

On an entirely different, and somewhat cynical note, any PAUSD board member who votes to keep Callan, and expects to have a clear political future in Palo Alto, should think twice about their decision. People remember these things - or, they are helped to remember them, come election time.

For the record, Callan's ineffective leadership style and bullying tactics did not begin a mere two years ago; they have been a problem from almost the very beginning. Due to the tradition of "behind closed doors" negotiating, Callan's tactics in negotiation between the district and teachers, negotiations that resulted in teacher dissension, were not fully reported to the press. This is a fact. On an earlier thread on this topic, another poster pointred out some of the details during that time.

On the hiring of an analyst: this is something that might be useful for discovery, to find out what went wrong, but it should in no way exonerate the serious breach of leadership and lack of management accountability that has plagued PAUSD since the beginning of Callan's reign.

When a public organization suffers a vote of no confidence in the senior executive, it's virtually impossible to recover and return the environment to one of openness and trust, because the initiating of new behavior has to come from the person whose lack of trustworthy leadership caused the problem in the first place. This is especially true in a school district like PAUSD, whose management demeanor is top-down. [the latter fact is unfortunate, and a serious problem in many public school systems, as they are compelled to labor, legislate and administrate using a system of management better suuited to 1950's industrial America, instead of the dynamic, inclusive system of management that public schools cry out for in today's fast-changing world]

Also, you're right about pursuing this at full speed ahead, and getting it resolved.

I can pretty much assure anyone who takes the time to ask around that Superintendent Mary Frances Callan, and at least two of her senior staff would not be missed by most PAUSD teachers and administrative management staff. On balance, she's been far more unpopular and ineffective on the personnel front that any Superintendent in recent memory, and has clearly failed to properly and successfully lead one of the best teaching and administrative staffs in the country. Political astuteness and negotiating chops should be *part* of a Superintendent's package, along with leadership, motivational, and visionary skills, especially in a school district like this one.

My hope is that the board - especially those who are currently in favor of keeping Callan - will look beyond what appears to be a fear of sullying PAUSD's vaunted reputation by making the hard choice to depose Callan.

Perhaps those on the board - who out of personal favor (it's not easy to fire someone you know well), or the fears mentioned above - need to consider that they, too, are in a learning environment, and that the most effective learning environments permit mistakes, as long as the agents in those environments learn from those mistakes.

Lest the above argument be used to support the maintenence of MFC as Superintendent, one should consider that one of the fundamental parts of any senior executive's job description is "accountability", an essential component of "responsibility".

The responsibility of the executive is to run a successful operation, and not make the *basic* mistakes that Callan has made - mistakes that should have been ironed out of her personal and management repetiore years ago, as she was supposed to be growing towards excellence.

In fact, MFC has had MANY chances to right her management behavior, but has consistently ignored clear signals from her subordinates about fundamental problems. Thus, the Management Team letter; thus, extreme teacher dissatisfaction with Callan; thus, dissension on the PAUSD board; thus, a beginning loss of confidence by the public in one of Palo Alto's most important public institutions.

In this case, it's the PAUSD board that has to give itself permission to either admit that a mistake was made, or that the Superintendent's personal and management style has outlived its usefulness in a district that has come a long way since she began, often in spite of her now-exposed ineffectiveness as a leader.

It's time for a change at the senior executive, and associate senior executive levels.

Last, I want to thank you for blogging this issue, because - given the above-described PAUSD demeanor - district spin might get the people who have to make this difficult decision, a decision to terminate ths Superintendent, off the hook.

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Posted by Curious
a resident of Southgate
on Oct 18, 2006 at 1:07 pm

I've heard more than once that "two" of the senior cabinet should go. Can you clarify which two, and why? Thanks.

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Posted by RWE
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 18, 2006 at 4:14 pm

The two principals in question are Marilyn Cook and Scott Bowers. I don't know enough about the third (Jerry Mantenga), to comment.

All said, Coo, Bowers, and Mantenga have been largely responsible to suggesting and implementing policy and demeanor *that they had a large hand in formulating*.

Here, it's important to note that the buck does stop at the top, and that the current district administrative demeanor is set by the executive; thus, Cook, Mantanga, and Bowers cannot be held to the same level of professional culpability as Callan, but all three (and esoecially Cook, because she's been here longer) seem to have had no problem in forging and carrying out tactical strategies that have contributed to the large problem that staff is currently experiencing. Where's *their* accountability? Should they be viewed as simply "good soldiers"? I don' think so. Their - and Callan's - administrative behavior have *cost* this disrtrict human and dollar efficiencies.

What we've heard from district staff, and more than a few insiders, is that Bowers, and especially Cook has been extraordinarily ineffective as regards the vexing problem of communication, chilling atmosphere, and de-motivational policy making that has been at the heart of the current set of problems.

When Cook was assigned to 25 Churchill, many district administrtive staff were initially enthused, because Cook had been a mostly efficient administrator at Paly. As soon as she took office, she began using and initiating tactics that made people very angry.

Again, senior administrators are well paid, and are supposed to be a "professional's professional" when taking office. Given the current situation, it appears that there has been not only a breakdown in communications - caused by long-standing problems emanating from 25 Churchill - but also a general sense of "them" as regards the relationship between senior executive staff and the rest of PAUSD's employees.

Is that healthy? Is that professional? And, will someone, anyone, please tell us where such a total failure to effectively manage one of the best teaching/administrative groups in America shouldn't result in termination, in service of bringing in senior people who more closely resonate with staff, as well as having the necessary administrative chops and gravitas. The latter three qualities are what's missing at 25 Churchill.

It's certainly time for a change at the top, and strong consideration of additional changes at the near-top (reassignments and/or dismissal, depending on the Board's pleasure), and an overall look at bringing PAUSD into the 21st century with a leader and executive team that befits the massive challenges and problems current in American culture and education today. PAUSD deserves no less.

This is an *opporuntity* for the PAUSD board to take a necessary, and difficult decision, and at the same time a fantastic and exciting foray into the future. I wish them well

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Posted by Diana Diamond
Palo Alto Online blogger
on Oct 19, 2006 at 8:48 am

Diana Diamond is a registered user.


Your comments have been very interesting.

You asked about the 3-2 board split. When I talked to some of the board members, they were trying hard to analyze the problem and sort things out. Since I did not directly ask them if they would personally vote to dismiss Mary Frances, I don't want to say who would do what -- because I sense they have not made up their minds. I do know they care a lot about what is happening in the district.

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Posted by Paly Mom
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 21, 2006 at 3:19 am

My guess is that you can characterize the board as follows:

Gail Price - for years the lone voice in the wilderness; trying to get the prior board (including John Barton and Cathy Kroymann) to recognize the Mary Frances issue.

Barb Mitchell - less radical and less frustrated by this mess than Gail but maybe because she hasn't lived for years with this; coming along pretty quickly, though, and anxious to get the evidence and make a decision on MFC.

Dana Tom - some people perceived weakness and vacillation during his run for school board and this perception seems to have been borne out; a nice guy but not someone with the stomach for this battle; my guess is he'd rather be a part of the Cathy Kroymann "don't air our dirty laundry" crowd.

Mandy Lowell - conscientious and trying to do what she perceives as her best but somehow utterly missing the forest for the trees; she's heard the MFC stories for years and yet discounts them; she takes the fact that people are speaking out as evidence that there is nothing wrong with our communication and no failure of trust - "See?? People are willing to talk! Nothing wrong here. Go back to your lives, people."

Camille Townsend - "Oh my gawd! This is so, so, so awesome! It's so great to talk about these things. What was your name again?" Nuff said.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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