Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 25, 2012

School district defends confidential memos

Study session next week on state's open-meeting law follows allegations of possible violation

by Chris Kenrick

Saying that "at no time has there been any attempt to keep information from the public," Palo Alto schools Superintendent Kevin Skelly said Tuesday he does not believe weekly confidential memos he has been sending the Board of Education have led to any violation of the law.

His statement comes in response to a May 14 letter to the board from Palo Alto Weekly Publisher Bill Johnson that alleged it was "clear that the very purpose of (the confidential memos) has been to exclude the public" and that an April 20 memo, which included Skelly's comments about the high school counseling system at Gunn High School, "conveys the thinking and potential actions of district administrators on a subject (counseling) on which you are in the midst of formulating policy."

Johnson stated that the memos may have led to a violation of the Brown Act, which prohibits the majority of members of an elected body from using "a series of communications of any kind, directly or through intermediaries, to discuss, deliberate, or take action on any item of business that is within the subject jurisdiction of the legislative body."

In the April 20 memo, Skelly invited board members to discuss this "sensitive" counseling issue with him further if they desired.

Johnson's letter cited the California state Attorney General's Brown Act handbook, which strongly cautions against confidential communications.

Skelly said Tuesday the school district's legal counsel corroborated his view that the confidential updates — which he said he has provided virtually every week in his five years as superintendent — are not a Brown Act violation.

"At no time has there been any attempt to keep information from the public or prevent those who inquired about information from receiving it," Skelly said in a statement read aloud at the board meeting.

"While I believe that there are solid, appropriate reasons for this type of communication, the board, district staff members and I have always known that the great majority of these weekly communications are public records and, as such, are fully open to public scrutiny should they be requested," he said.

To further address the issue with the school board, the district has scheduled a study session Thursday, May 31, on the open-meeting law. A legal adviser will be on hand to answer questions.

Skelly's view of the memos was disputed by several parent speakers at Tuesday's board meeting, who said an April 6 memo and the subsequent April 20 memo "made it clear the superintendent was going in a different direction" on the counseling issue than had been instructed by the board in a March 27 public meeting.

Parent Ken Dauber called on board members to "restate your commitment" for Gunn to move toward a counseling model similar to the "teacher advisory" model used at Palo Alto High — a commitment Dauber said had been reflected in board comments at the March 27 meeting.

Dauber is cofounder of a parent group We Can Do Better Palo Alto, which has lobbied the board for more than a year to implement at Gunn a teacher-advisory system.

"We have a broken process in which the private process has diverged from the public process," Dauber told the board Tuesday.

Skelly said his staff is working to fulfill nine Public Records Act requests received since April 23 on issues related to confidential memos and high school guidance counseling.

Seven of the requests have come from Dauber or Dauber's wife, Michele Dauber. One came from Johnson and another from Jen Nowell of the Palo Alto Daily Post.

"These documents and the requests are of interest to the larger community," Skelly said, adding that the district has posted them on its website.

The May 31 meeting on the Brown Act, which will be recorded, begins at 1 p.m. in Conference Room A of school district headquarters, 25 Churchill Ave.

TALK ABOUT IT

Share your opinion about Kevin Skelly's weekly confidential memos to the Board of Education. Go to Town Square, the community discussion forum on Palo Alto Online.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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