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December 14, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Mystery surrounds principal's departure Mystery surrounds principal's departure (December 14, 2005)

Rumors fly as Di Salvo, district officials remain mum

by Alexandria Rocha

Six months ago, Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School principal Joe Di Salvo left the school -- but the circumstances of his departure remain shrouded in mystery.

Parents have sought to uncover the reasons for his absence, but district officials -- and Di Salvo -- have remained mum, citing personnel confidentiality laws and a gag order placed by a settlement the two sides reached in October.

Rumors over an alleged dispute and the principal's forced resignation started circling among parents during the summer when they learned Di Salvo -- who held his post at JLS for more than three years -- would not return. District officials placed Di Salvo on a leave of absence in June, a time when the Palo Alto Unified School District was shifting around various administrators.

At first the community treated the leave as business as usual. After a few months passed without any explanation, however -- and when parents' inquiries of board members and administrators went unanswered -- some became agitated and suspected there was more to the story.

"We pay a lot of taxes to live here and to have good quality instructors and principals in our school district. When one disappears, I deserve the right to know what happened," said Cheryl O'Conner, a Palo Alto parent whose son recently graduated from JLS.

A copy of the settlement obtained by the Weekly sheds little light on what has been termed a "voluntary resignation" but indicates Di Salvo was forced out of his position. Language in the document states there was a dispute over whether the district had "adequate or any cause to remove" the principal.

The agreement states Di Salvo is currently on "special assignment" this school year, under which he may perform "nominal duties" assigned by district Superintendent Mary Frances Callan. He's being paid his full salary, which district officials state is in the $100,000 to $129,000 range, and is set to resign June 30, 2006.

Don Cox, a former principal at Hoover Elementary School, is serving in Di Salvo's stead -- also at a full salary.

The settlement -- signed by Di Salvo, his attorney Gregory McCoy, the district's attorney Louis Lazano, Callan and then-school board President John Barton -- states "the parties agree not to discuss" the agreement and to "comport themselves in a professional manner so as not to intentionally engage in behavior which is derogatory to the other."

At this point, all parties involved are doing their best to keep silent.

When O'Connor decided to confront the school board at a meeting in November, board members fidgeted uncomfortably in their seats. "We can't discuss this with you," Barton said.

When questioned by the Weekly, district officials remained tight-lipped but were quick to praise Di Salvo's qualities as a principal.

"This is a personnel thing," Board Vice President Mandy Lowell said. "People have a right to privacy. Imagine that there was some other circumstance."

"Would I have any qualms (about) Joe Di Salvo being principal of anyone else's school?" she added. "No."

"We are bound by an agreement, and I will not violate that agreement," Callan affirmed. "The community would be upset if we violated that agreement."

Di Salvo told the Weekly in an e-mail that he hopes the "unvarnished truth ... sans rumor(s)" will be revealed to the JLS community.

"I cannot be the source of the information due to my agreements with PAUSD," he added.

For now, rumors are all parents have to go on.

Many assert that underneath the legalese, an explosive situation between Di Salvo and a JLS teacher -- or teachers -- boiled over last May and ultimately led to his departure. When Di Salvo reportedly filed a complaint against one teacher in particular, parents say she threatened the district with a much larger lawsuit -- possibly involving sexual discrimination.

To avoid such litigation, parents believe the district forced Di Salvo to resign.

Scott Bowers, the district's assistant superintendent of human resources, said he isn't aware of any complaints or grievances filed against teachers or the district since he took his position in July, which was after any alleged incidents occurred.

He took over for Marilyn Cook, who was promoted to associate superintendent of educational services.

"I'm not trying to be obtuse here or skirt them. I haven't had any yet," Bowers said, regarding complaints.

On Monday, during a phone call with the Weekly, the teacher linked to the Di Salvo rumor refused to comment on her involvement.

When asked if that was because of an agreement with the district, she said, "No."

"It's basically my own integrity. I want to be loyal to Joe and his situation. It's my business, and it's nobody else's business," she added.

Bowers said he plans to send an announcement out to JLS parents about Di Salvo's resignation. It won't include any details, but will explain the district's next steps to find a new principal.

Some parents said it's about time.

"I think the JLS community is really suffering just for lack of knowledge," said Palo Alto parent Lynn Magill. "I think it's unfair they haven't told the kids. All the kids are just assuming he's coming back. Joe was very energetic, positive and upbeat."

Meanwhile, Di Salvo has decided to move on. He is teaching part-time as an adjunct professor at Santa Clara University and writing a monthly education column for a local newspaper.

"I greatly miss Palo Alto and my work with the learning community of (JLS)," he wrote in another e-mail to the Weekly. "I believe during my ... years as principal we ... did some good work together." Staff Writer Alexandria Rocha can be reached at [email protected]

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