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District needs to resolve conflict sooner rather than later

Original post made by Diana Diamond, Palo Alto Online blogger, on Nov 3, 2006

The Palo Alto school board took a much-needed step Thursday night when it agreed to hire an outside facilitator to explore the problems between the district’s middle management group (principals, assistant principals and other managers) and the supervisory staff, including Superintendent Mary Frances Callan.

The only trouble is that whoever is hired won’t start talking to school district people until January and nothing will be resolved until February – at the earliest. Considering that a middle managers’ memo about lack of trust and communication between the supervisory staff and these managers surfaced in early September, resolving this conflict seems to be taking a lot of time.

I agree with board member Gail Price who apologized for the board not acting more quickly to the Sept. 6 memo, saying the delay has had a negative impact on morale.

On Thursday the board appointed three people (board members Dana Tom Price, and Assistant Superintendent Scott Bowers) to its half of a committee that will decide the role of the facilitator as well as screen applicants. Next, the middle managers have to appoint four to six people to the same committee. I just hope the managers make the appointments quickly to speed up the process.

I also would encourage the committee not to spend a lot of time defining what criteria should be used to select a facilitator. I’ve found in interviewing candidates that when the right person comes along, people just know that’s the person for the job.

Ostensibly, someone could be hired by late November and begin talking to people earlier than next year. It’s not healthy to let district conflicts simmer month after month. I know things take time, but working in a stressful environment daily can be frustrating.

By the way, the name of this new group is the “Organizational Development Committee.” That certainly doesn’t give a hint to anyone about what this committee is all about, especially since the underlying issue here is whether Callan should continue as superintendent of the district.

Comments (14)

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Posted by RWE
a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 4, 2006 at 1:37 am

Well said. Diana, if you have time, there is some DEEP reporting that can be coaxed from this crisis. It's reporting that goes to the heart about how and why the then-BOE came to hire Mary Frances Callan, and why the criteria for hiring Superintendents needs to be better-thought-out, and done with far more participation from PAUSD teachers and administrators.

It needs to be clearly stated that Callan is not "evil", or a "bad person". In fact, Callan can be quite engaging when she wants to be, and knows her way around some of the state's educational political circus (although her effectiveness in leading local political agendas is high in question). Callan's problem is a part of who she is; it''s simply that her management style is ineffective for *this* group of teachers and administrators. That's been clear from the get-go.

Callan was hired because her reputation for being tough with unions preceded her. What surprised me at the time she was hired was her seeming lack of *comprehensive* gravitas, especially given the candidate pool that PAUSD could have chosen from. This is not meant as an insult; she'a a capable administrator, as far as it goes. That said, given PAUSD's reputation, and the talent out there - even in our OWN district - we could have hired someone who was more in tune with personnel.

What was puzzling at the time is why the BOE chose a mid-Western search firm to go out and do a national for a Superintendent. This is an action that flies in the face of the expressed goals PAUSD claims to have when hiring *anyone* - namely, "we hire the best of the best". If that's really true, and not a sound bite, why aren't we picking our Superintendents from a pool of our best site administrators, who have been in, and understand PAUSD better than the "hired guns" that we tend to bring in?

Past BOE members, like Kathy Kroynmann, practically channeled Callan on all personnel issues. I heard *many* PAUSD staff complaining about this. It's as if Kroynmann had one BIG agenda - to crush compensation increases - and voted to bring in a "heavy" to get the job done.

Another question that this crisis begs is "why and how do we end up with a BOE that almost NEVER has a professional educator as part of its membership".

Can anyone name ANY professional, certified body of professionals who have policy mostly made for them by people who are not at least mostly members of their profession? I can't think of one. There may be a few, but if so, it's a FEW, at most.

We had better start re-thinking the way we do education around here, in a number of ways. The world is changing at warp speed, with all institutions - education among them - along for the ride. We MUST find ways to create BOE's that have a more efficient mix, including at least 1-2 members who have *real teaching and/or educational administrative experience*. Otherwise, we're going to continue to politicize our educational institutions in ways that keep them from evolving fast enough to stay on board this warp speed world.

Getting back to the subject of your post: yes, it's important that this process speed along; it's also important that anonymity be *clearly and transparently* protected. I've stated on another thread that it's not a good idea to have a PAUSD administrative executive on the "half-committee" that the boarrd is trying to establish, *especially* if that person is not bound by the same confidentiality rules (defined by the Brown Act) as the PAUSD-apponted members to the "half-committee".

As well, stay on top of the spin, which will be difficult in this case because the senior executive team and three board members are spinning as fast as a gyroscope in order to maiintain some semblance of control and calm image. You could have cut the behind-the-table tension with a knife last evening;; it was that thick, especially when Mandy Lowell, Camille Townsend, and Dana Tom (especially Townsend and Tom - real disappointments, so far) tried to insert only members of the delay-causing, time-buying, spin-this-thing-into-aether majority. that was a special moment, and a brilliant tactical move. Now, at least, we are assured that there will be a fair, impartial, thoughtful, articulate voice (Gail Price) on that committee, if it goes forward.

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Posted by RWE
a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 4, 2006 at 1:44 am

oops! The above last paragraph should read:
"As well, stay on top of the spin, which will be difficult in this case because the senior executive team and three board members are spinning as fast as a gyroscope in order to maiintain some semblance of control and calm image. You could have cut the behind-the-table tension with a knife last evening;; it was that thick, especially when Mandy Lowell, Camille Townsend, and Dana Tom (especially Townsend and Tom - real disappointments, so far) tried to insert only members of the delay-causing, time-buying, spin-this-thing-into-aether majority. MITCHELL AND PRICE parried and overcame the not-too-clever (and VERY transparent!) majority's tactic; that was a special moment, and a brilliant tactical move. Now, at least, we are assured that there will be a fair, impartial, thoughtful, articulate voice (Gail Price) on that committee, if it goes forward."

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Posted by Diana Diamond
Palo Alto Online blogger
on Nov 4, 2006 at 10:13 am

Diana Diamond is a registered user.


Thank you for your most thoughtful comments. I agree with many of your observations, although I cannot yet comment on the hiring of Mary Frances because I have not really studied what happened.

As to your suggestions on the make-up of the board, I do agree that we should work hard to make sure that really bright, knowledgeable people run for seats on the board. I don't agree that a five-member board should include one or two professional educators, because I think the superintendent fulfills that role, and really dominates much of the board thinking and discussion. And professional educators are constantly giving reports to the board, meeting after meeting, so the views of these educators are well represented.

The school board had long been a political stepping stone to other elected posts in town -- it was the first step to a council seat. Luckily, I think that practice has almost ended (John Barton is the exception), and we now have people who are interested in education per se(and not city politics) serving on the board. That being said, I do think we should look for quality candidates.

As I recall, the school's annual budget nearly matches the city's annual budget. The board spends about $120 million/year, and the city's general revenue fund this year is $129 million. So in addition to a keen interest in education, we also need to choose board members with some financial savvy, to ensure the money is well spent.


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Posted by waiting for the light
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 4, 2006 at 1:27 pm

Dear Diana and RWE:

Thank you for your continuing and articulate coverage of this issue. One thing that concerned me at the meeting was that the Board didn't seem clear on the purpose of the investigator -- was it to confirm that there really IS a widespread problem of trust and communication, or to explore the problem we acknowledge exists and recommend action based on the factual findings of that investigation? If the former, I am disheartened. If the latter, then sooner is absolutely better.

I do appreciate the Board's attempt to do this very correctly and cleanly, so that in the event the investigator(s) recommend removing senior administrators, they can rely on objective findings of an outside person. On the other hand, I hope the Board -- all of them -- understand that if the problem turns out upon investigation to be as significant as rumor suggests, counseling Ms. Callan and her staff on how to be nicer and more responsive to their subordinates just won't fix the problem.

This district could be great under the right leadership. Let's bring it back up to its former glory by looking at hte Benkchmark study and figuring out what the other, simliar but more successful districts are doing right and working to get this District back into alignment.

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Posted by RWE
a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 4, 2006 at 6:58 pm

A few comments:

First, to Diana - - on the item having to do with board makeup; it's true that teaching and administrative professionals often present to the board, and that the board takes those presentations under advisement.

It's also true that the Superintendent inputs to the board - formally - as an educator.

What's a given, but very seldom recognized, is that the bulk of *formal* education - and nowadays, a hefty chunk of socialization - is delivered and received face-to-face, in real-time, between teacher and student. That's the reality of the situation.

There are other, important, more-than-incidental kinds of learning that take place outside the classroom, but let's stay away from those for the purposes of this response.

District Supervisors tend to make their mark mostly in administration, often preceded by some real-time teaching experience. I don't have wide-ranging raw data to show what the ratio of in-class teaching to formal administration experience for sitting superintendents is, but I'd be willing to bet that there's a strong bias for administrative experience - as well as a preference by those who pursue superintendent and associate superintendent positions.

So what we have come to in California is roughly 1000 sitting District Superintendents of Education, with an administrative bias (and some classroom experience), who answer to Board's of Education that are populated by persons with a WIDE range of experience that MOSTLY reflect how locals FEEL about education, and some of the directions they want their kids socialized.

My question is "how is the teaching profession - including the work the teaching profession does, not to mention their clients (our kids)well-werved by having persons who often know NOTHING about classroom experience, and in fact probably have NEVER taught in a classroom?".

What has resulted from this mish-mash of non-professionals are extremes like the ones we've seen in some mid-western states, and elsewhere, where BOE's have insisted that Intelligent Design be taught as a peer to Darwin's ideas about Natural Selection. Do the teachers want this? No.

On a smaller, local scale, if one polled teachers on ideas like Mandarin Immersion, you would hear them asking some very hard questions about the wisdom of going forward with this program because of the constraints it puts on the PAUSD system. Will you hear teachers angaging in the debate about things like MI, an Arts Magnet School, re-opening Cubberly, etc. etc? No. Why? Because education has become a social and political football, with as many differing ideas about what public education should be doing as there are school boards.

So, we have a situation where the nuts and bolts and art of educating people is left to those with mostly an administrative bias, governed by well-meaning BOE's who learn by doing, sometimes.

Again, I can't think of a single profession whose ON THE JOB goals are governed by policy made in this way. Can you?

Second, to "waiting for the light" - I agree 100% with your conclusion. If there is a systemic communication problem in a top-down organization, and that organization is governed at the top by policy maers (liek a BOE) - it's incumbent on this epolicy makers to put new executives in. We simply don't have the time to try to change personal styles. We have to get back to having this district fire on all cylinders.

IN any case, that's not an easy thing to do; it's impossible if the process is tainted by the years it would take to repair trust issues if the same executives are left in place once this thing is over - assuming trust, leadership, and motivational constraints are the things that have gone wrong. We're looking for accountability.

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Posted by ABC
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 5, 2006 at 9:39 am

Yes, accountability. What assurances do we have that the BOE will heed advice put forth by this "Organizational Development Committee" or even the third party facilitator? I hope that the findings and recommendations lead the 5 BOE members to the same conclusion. The worst possible outcome would be having wildly varying interpretations of the recommendations -- leading to more indecision and worsening morale.

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Posted by RWE
a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 5, 2006 at 11:11 pm

I think there's a good chance that the BOE will heed the "Development Committee" advice.

Gail Price will keep Dana Tom in line. Tom is already in trouble with a sizeable constituency in S. Palo Alto, as his actions have directly conbtradicted his campaign promises. Of course, he's trying to spin that, by claiming things like "we have to define what trust is" before we can improve communication problems. What?

And, if Scott Bowers wants to earn the trust of the personnel that he will be negotiating with down the road, he will not dare to push too hard on the MT in any way that resembles the cynicl manipulations and hardball tactics that Callan and Cook have used for these past few years. He doesn't want to become "persona non grata" in the eyes of most of the MT, as Marilyn Cook is today. Bowers inherited Callan's and Cook's *institutional* hard edge; he has had to tow the line because he reports to them. He now has a chance to succeed and come out of this with respect, if he doesn't kow-tow to Callan and Cook. That will be a difficult balancing act.

If the MT manages to maintain its forward momentum, it will clearly lay out the systemic nature of what's gone wrong with district trust, communications, and leadership.

The responsibility foro those problems lie squarley at the feel of one person, and some of her executive staff.

From there, the BOE will have to show courage, and do what needs to be done to return leadership and enabling (instead of constricting) management to PAUSD.

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Posted by anon
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 6, 2006 at 10:30 am

I think Dana Tom is a disappointment - as a new BOE member, he could strike out afresh, take a stand, be an individual on tricky issues that have a past

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Posted by Squishy
a resident of Escondido School
on Nov 6, 2006 at 7:03 pm

I agree Dana has been a real zero on the board but I don't agree he's been a disappointment. For him to disappoint, one would have had to have had an expectation of him. It was pretty clear during the campaign that Dana was stumbling and bumbling through it, trying to get away with saying nothing intelligible which might get him into trouble.

At least he was true to himself in this campaigning mode. There's just no there there. DANA TOM anagram TOAD MAN.

C'mon, Dana. Step up!!

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Posted by Mary Withrington
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 7, 2006 at 6:22 pm

Well, RWE and Diana, how did we get this school board? We elected the people that ran, remember? If we want different people, we will need to get different people to run and then elect them. I disagree that the board should hire an outside consultant to settle this problem. We elected the board to make these kinds of decisions. They need to do the job they were elected to do and solve this problem and/or find a way to work with Ms. Callan, even if they do not always agree with her. I also don't think the name-calling will help. Everyone needs to work together - in private - without the newspapers leaking memos that were never meant to be public. How can board mambers and administrators be candid if everything they say is reported without context?

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Posted by Diana Diamond
Palo Alto Online blogger
on Nov 8, 2006 at 7:24 am

Diana Diamond is a registered user.

Mary and RWE --

First, Mary, I agree with you conceptually -- we did elect this school board to make decisions, and relying on an outside consultant is a bit of a cop out. But we also have a 3-2 divided board, leaning in support of Mary Frances Callan, and therefore an objective outsider's look at the extent of the problems of trust and communication could help the overall district. If the consultant finds these problems are extensive, then board members will be forced to decide about Callan. If the reverse is true, improvements could be made. And I think school board matters, like city matters, should be open to the public, rather than decided behind closed doors.

RWE - I can think of a lot of boards of directors that do not have "professionals" serving on their board. Stanford University is just one example; the same is true of many nonprofits (like the Red Cross). Also city councils do not have professional city administrators serving as elected officials...

I think we would all agree that ultimately it is up to the school board to decide what to do -- the consultant can only recommend. And a decision should be made as early as possible.


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Posted by natasha
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 8, 2006 at 9:49 am

I support the Board's decision to hire an outside investigator. I believe the point of hiring an outside investigator is to keep the process above-board and squeaky clean.

Assume the Board ultimately decides to "clean house" and get rid of Ms. Callan and some or all of her senior staff. If the Board does this simply by vote based on the information it has to date, it leaves itself wide open to a suit by Ms. Callan. If it investigates on its own, administrators will not be able to speak on condition of anonymity because those discussions will be subject to the Brown Act if more than one Council member is involved, and if only one member is conducting the interviews, it gets back to the issue of credibility and impartiality -- who conducts the interviews? Additionally, will the adminsitrators feel confident speaking to the Board, when historically the Board has been closely allied with Senior staff? If they do not speak anonymously, what happens to them if Ms. Callan stays on?

If it goes with an independent, neutral and objective investigator (or team of investigators) to explore the problem and report back about its extent, the Board can act much more decisively and with fewer potential legal ramifications, based on the findings of that investigator. My biggest concern at the moment is that the investigation group(Gail and Dana and Scott Bowers and whoever the Management Team nominates to the committee) need to act quickly to get the investigator(s) in place -- the sooner the better. Why not start assembling a list of possible investigators for consideration, find out if they re even available, and get a meeting scheduled asap? When a problem of this magnitude comes to light, thoughtful but expeditious resolution is better for everyone involved.

As for closed meetings, I completely disagree with Mary. The problem has historically been one of insufficient openness, leading to a lack of accountability and the public being kept in the dark about issues that have materially affected the quality of their children's learning environment. Yes, an investigator should conduct private interviews, but the public has every right to know what the investigator discovers. Otherwise, how will we know whether the Board is doing its job when it ultimately acts on this problem? If the unhappiness rests with a few malcontents, as Ms. Callan originally contended, that is important information. If, on the other hand, the investigator determines that the unhappiness is widespread and that the other issues mentioned in the management team letter are pervasive, then that would mean Ms. Callan either misrepresented the magnitude of the problem in her public statements or that she is so disconnected that she didn't even realize how deeply things had broken down. All of this information is vital to an understanding of whether the ultimate action taken by the Board is appropriate in the eyes of the public.

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Posted by CP
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Nov 8, 2006 at 4:28 pm

The primary responsibility of the Board of Education is to hire, evaluate, and, if necessary, fire the superintendent. In doing so, the BoE members should solicit input from subordinates, parents, teachers and community leaders. Clearly, this has never happened, or the problems outlined in the memo from the management team to the superintendent would not have come as a big surprise.

These issues did not suddenly appear, but rather have been simmering under the surface for years until the management group mustered the collective courage to put its concerns in writing. I was aware of many of these concerns, as a parent who has been active in the PTA at several Palo Alto schools. Why were the majority of BoE members not aware of, or worse, unwilling to face the fact that there were serious morale problems among management team members?

I'm not happy that BoE members have chosen to hire an outside consultant to do the job we elected them to do, but at the same time, I see that, given the current mess, this is a compromise position on both sides. What I wish would happen are two things:

First, that Dr. Callan be placed on paid administrative leave while the investigation is ongoing. Serious enough concerns have been raised to justify this action. I've seen RWE's suggestion that the senior cabinet be obliged to observe Brown Act rules with respect to discussing Organization Development Committee affairs with peers, but I don't think that is sufficient. As clerk of the BoE, the superintendent has shown disdain for the Brown Act by failing to document board actions that would be embarrassing. The management team has to trust the process or it will be a waste of everyone's time and money.

Second, that the timetable for the work of the committee and consultant be very short. The BoE has demonstrated that it can act extremely quickly when it wants to, as in the case of forcing Joe DiSalvo out of JLS in a matter of a few weeks.

Finally, that if the consultant's findings are that the management team has grounds for distrusting the superintendent and her senior cabinet, that the BoE will know what to do and will act quickly. A consultant may be able to suggest ways to improve communication or the professional environment, but trust is something someone has either earned or has not; it cannot be negotiated or mediated.

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Posted by Board Observer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 14, 2006 at 1:24 pm

One major concern is that the district and the Board is overwhelmed with several very significant issues, with the Management T&R issue probably trumping all others in terms of importance. The soundness of direction and all other decisions, relies on the soundness of the district leadership.

Not only is the board overwhelmed by this issue, but the Staff is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of important matters, and now distracted by this matter. (Example: Marilyn Cook clearly one of key 'suspects' on the trust and respect issue, is also leading the MI study, is also leading the AARG study, all set to conclude for Board vote at about the same time this Spring. How can the community expect due diligence and fair and impartial work on ~all~ these important matters ~all~ at the same time?

In fact, this matter (or leaving this matter unresolved) calls in to question the veracity of the research and decision making process around all other important decisions. If the board were to decide to remove Callan and Cook, I believe that would create the need to review all the very critical decisions made during this last several month period anyway.

(In other words, if they're dismissed for trust, how can we trust their Superintendent and Staff Recommendations and backup work on very important matters during this period? How would we know their motives were unbaised, and not motivated by self preservation or other misguided priorities?)

I believe all other major decision should be tabled until the board concludes this matter. If nothing else, it would force them to move more quickly this matter so they could move back to AARG and MI closure.

Specifically Gail, who seems to be the only one on the board (besides Barb) interested in seeking truth and fair process, ("Stubborness of Fact" as I've heard her say many times) is currently towing the full burden for representing the community needs on several important issues practically singlehandedly. Management T&R and MI come to mind.

The board made a big mistake in the beginning of the year by allowing so many VERY important issues on the table, to come for decision at the same time this spring. In fact they had to postpone the thing we needed most at that time, which was refreshed strategic priorities! And this was before the Management issue ~or~ the blow up of the Los Altos Hills redistricting hit the fan.

The board needs to address the timelines for this Management issue, AARG final decision and the MI final decision and adjust all backward to allow for proper resolution on the Management T&R issue first and foremost. Please ask for this.

If you speak to the board, please ask them to solve this first before they drag our district into any more half baked schemes, cooked up by MC and MC.

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

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