Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - June 15, 2012

Editorial: A tipping point for school board?

With rebuke, trustees attempt to reassert their role as policy makers in wake of poorly managed process

Faced with a mess largely of their own making, Palo Alto Superintendent Kevin Skelly and the school board sought this week to clear the air, put aside emotion and defensiveness and chart a fresh and more deliberate course forward on the subject of high school counseling.

While Skelly's apology for not providing better leadership on the issue was welcome, it did not go nearly far enough in accepting responsibility for undermining the board and for fueling rather than calming fears within the Gunn community.

And the problems, as school-board member Barbara Klausner bravely and eloquently pointed out in a prepared statement Tuesday night, go far beyond the debate over whether Gunn's counseling system should be changed to look more like Paly's teacher-adviser model.

The counseling debate has exposed serious governance and transparency questions that demand attention from the board, the superintendent and the community.

Do we expect that board members in our school district function as decision-makers, prepared to give clear direction to staff through motions and votes, or does the board exist as primarily a sounding board that offers input and guidance to its professional staff?

When and if direction is given, is it the staff's duty to communicate and carry out the will of the board or does it have license to pursue its own desires and preferences?

Is the district truly committed to transparency of operations, so the public can have confidence that there are not private communications that are at odds with what takes place in public meetings?

And finally, what does Palo Alto's unwritten policy of site-based decision-making really mean? Under what circumstances may schools decide to have entirely different programs, policies and practices from one another?

Much of the rancor that exists within the school community today could have been avoided if there were clear answers to these questions and if all participants weren't in such a hurry to defend their positions and marginalize those with whom they disagree.

Some, especially school insiders (teachers, staff and parents who put in extraordinary hours to support teachers and kids), blame the discord on the tactics of a parent group, We Can Do Better Palo Alto, and their leaders, Ken and Michele Dauber.

The Daubers have angered and alienated many with their biting and sometimes disrespectful criticisms, primarily directed at school staff, and they have scared away some potential supporters who don't have the stomach for such confrontation.

They have even been criticized, as has the Weekly, for digging into public records and uncovering the fact that Skelly and the school board have made a practice of discussing and in some cases formulating policy privately, outside of public meetings.

Much as we disapprove of some of the Daubers' tactics and personal attacks and the charged environment they have helped create, it is their work, data analysis and digging that has enabled the public to fully participate and to know what has happened behind the scenes. For that, they should be thanked not condemned.

As Klausner detailed in her statement (available on Palo Alto Online), the school district leadership, including Skelly and Gunn principal Katya Villalobos, said one thing to the board and then proceeded to communicate a different message to the Gunn community.

The manipulative tactics even extended to Tuesday's board meeting, at which some Gunn staff, students and parents appeared in order to not just praise Gunn's counseling system but to criticize Paly's.

Just as there is no excuse for some of the Daubers' behavior, there should be even less tolerance for staff stooping to this level.

So where to go from here? How are we to bring back civility to the debate, repair the credibility of staff and get back to addressing the need for changes in the counseling program?

Like a parent who chastises a child for his behavior and then proceeds to give him what he wants, the board is struggling to send a clear message of dissatisfaction to its staff while at the same time realizing it now needs to give staff time and space to re-group and navigate to a good solution.

In the end, the board signaled its intention to approve everything the staff wanted: more money and staffing for both schools and an open process for developing recommended changes in the Gunn counseling system by early next year, for implementation in the fall of 2013.

While we believe the board missed an opportunity to make a policy decision that would have focused Gunn's work over the next few months on how to integrate teacher advisers instead of leaving all possible options on the table, we understand why the polarization in the community made that difficult.

If there is one overarching lesson from the events of the last three months, it should be that openness and transparency empowers people by making everyone knowledgeable and capable of being equal participants.

When secrecy and hidden agendas are allowed to take root and become the norm in public agencies, even with the best of intentions, the legitimacy of decisions will be questioned and the outcomes will suffer.

Everyone involved has good intentions. Everyone wants what is best for the students. It's now time, as most school board members said on Tuesday, to set aside the emotions, hit the re-set button, and work with integrity and open minds to improve counseling services and improve the governance process.

Comments

Posted by Bill Kelly, a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 15, 2012 at 11:48 am

How deep should the School Board go in looking into 'problems' at each school? Is it micromanagement to just ask Skelly for a recommendation, or should the board 'stick its nose into the problem and recommend a solution?' . It seems to me from reading the many issues that this problem has created, that the editorial failed to fault the school board for micromanagement.


Posted by Gunn community, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 15, 2012 at 12:03 pm

From the outset the Palo Alto Weekly has done biased reporting on the Gunn counseling issue. Nearly every editorial and article has shown Paly's TA system to be perfect and the Gunn counseling system to be a failure. Neither system is perfect and each school is being asked to improve. Why are Gunn teachers and students being criticized for attending the June 12 Board meeting and voicing their support for their school? It is obvious that the Palo Alto Weekly has only listened to the leaders of We Can Do Better Palo Alto and their few supporters. There are many very happy Gunn students and parents who who believe in this excellent school and the professionals who work there. This community needs to get a grip on the fact that most schools in California have eliminated counselors due to budget cuts, have put their staff on furlough days, and have shortened the school year. We need to appreciate the wonderful high schools that we have and support the administration and staff who work there.


Posted by svatoid, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 15, 2012 at 12:05 pm

"From the outset the Palo Alto Weekly has done biased reporting on the Gunn counseling issue."
Biased reporting from the Weekly??? Say it isn't so.

"It is obvious that the Palo Alto Weekly has only listened to the leaders of We Can Do Better Palo Alto and their few supporters."
The weekly being influenced by a small group of vocal people??? say it isn't so.


Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 15, 2012 at 12:28 pm

We are out of all this (school issues), thankfully, though one cannot miss it living here - but seems to me that there is too much seemingly endless commentary by school board members - there ought to be a time limit. This would help the situation immensely (make decisions, get things done, evaluate results in a reasonable timeframe)
It comes across as endless process.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on Jun 15, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"When secrecy and hidden agendas are allowed to take root and become the norm in public agencies, even with the best of intentions, the legitimacy of decisions will be questioned and the outcomes will suffer."

This is totally responsible and appropriate journalism - Thank You Palo Alto Weekly.


Posted by parent, a resident of Escondido School
on Jun 15, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Is it any wonder the schools don't want to deal with the Daubers? They clearly have not gotten the message to let the professionals do their own work. I hope they run for school board because then they'll have to keep quiet except for twice a month.

From their Facebook page: Greetings from Verona! We were in Paris for Tuesday's school board meeting but managed to catch most of it via streaming video. Please correct me if I have something wrong.

First, the board adopted a homework policy that for the first time sets time limits for homework in Palo Alto. This was a big priority for us and we should celebrate this success for kids in all grades. The school board should build on the success of the homework committee by rechartering a committee for next year to work on unfinished business, including penalties for late homework, reasonable guidelines around AP and honors classes, and the share of homework in final grades.

Second, the board discussed Gunn's response to the board's March 27 directive to come back with a plan for comparable services and to seriously consider teacher advisory in doing so. Barbara Klausner led off by pointing to a broken governance process around this issue, in which the Gunn administration never actually addressed the questions that the board had raised, and in fact devoted considerable effort to opposing the board's directive. Klausner held Dr. Skelly responsible for this divergence between the public and the private processes, and requested that he explicitly commit to ensuring that Gunn conforms to the board's directive in the next phase of work. Dr. Skelly agreed to do so. Dana Tom and Melissa Caswell also indicated that they supported Klausner's concern and statement. The board members' comments substantiate what we have been saying about the process for at least six weeks, and the chronology that we developed and that is discussed in my last post.

Despite their conclusion that Gunn has not to this point followed the board direction, the board seems strongly inclined to grant the district's request for an additional counselor at Gunn and for more time, until February 2013, to respond with a plan for counseling. This process would bring in parents and students as well as staff. The board will take action at its June 26 meeting.

Unfortunately, there was little sign that the subset of Gunn staff that opposes considering TA, and that has been the most vocal on this issue, is really interested in an open and fair consideration. Several teachers sharply criticized TA at Paly, despite the fact that their colleagues from Paly were in the room. They all insisted that Gunn is different and should have its own unique system. Hopefully Principal Villalobos will broaden the set of staff members involved to represent a real diversity of views.

We have the following suggestions for the board as it considers next steps:

1. Gunn should return early and frequently with updates. This will help monitor the process, incentivize the administration to run a fair and open process, and allow voters to determine before the November election the wisdom of the bet that school board members are making: that the Gunn administration can turn this process around and make it responsive to the board's directive, open, and fair.
2. Parent representation should extend to Gunn's feeder elementary and middle schools. These parents have a strong interest in the future of counseling at Gunn and should have a seat at the table as it is discussed.
3. All meetings of the committee working on this issue should be open to the public for observation and comment.

In sum, we're pleased that the board directly addressed the governance issues and we expect that Dr. Skelly and the Gunn administration will now put things right and we can move past this issue. We're disappointed that we still don't have a decision on improving Gunn counseling, but we're ready to participate in the process that Ms. Villalobos outlined and to continue our work on parent and community education on this issue.


Posted by Professional, a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 15, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Parent from Escondido:

Would you allow each teacher to determine her own curriculum for every course she teaches?

Why not?

By pondering this answer you will understand why the larger community has a role in shaping both academic and non-academic policy for the schools, rather than leaving it up to those responsible for implementing the policies.


Posted by gunn parent, a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 15, 2012 at 4:00 pm

such a relief to see the gunn community speaking up and standing up for one another, admitting that improvements and not upheavals are in order


Posted by One more mom, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 15, 2012 at 4:06 pm

WCBCPA and allies have one way of working only:

Get their own way at any cost. Look at the calendar issue. They wanted to change the calendar. They were rebuffed several times. They came back every time to demand to have things go their way. And thus it was that the board finally gave in, probably so that the issue just could go away. The result is a calendar that most Palo Alto parents do not like.

Well, everything is the same. They will come back and charge and attack until they get their way on everything.

Never mind that what they ask for is at times completely contradictory, such as 1) reduce homework and 2) strengthen graduation requirements by aligning them on UC admission standards. Uh ??

What is happening right now is terrible. It will inflict a lot of damage on our school and our students. Unfortunately, it looks like we can't stop the stampede of that minority group.

I agree the Daubers should run for the board. Why aren't they doing it? We would get a clear vision of whether or not their views are popular in Palo Alto... I have my on opinion on this that they are not.


Posted by Curious, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 15, 2012 at 4:10 pm

Mr. Kelly.

Is this an example of board micromanaging: private email exchanges between Barb Klausner and Gunn principal Ms. Villalobos?

Ms. Klausner asked to meet privately with Ms. Villalobos, Gunn's principal, immediately after the board's March guidance meeting. After the two met, Ms. Klausner sent Ms. Villalobos We Can Do Better's pro-teacher-advisor materials, gave her a link to another pro-teacher-advisor group which she said provides "assistance in implementing teacher advisory-type programs" and then told Ms. Villalobos that "I will be looking at solutions from the lens of a model that includes some aspect of teacher advisory." She did not mention any other type of program.

I'm a newbie to how school boards work but in the corporate world it would not be appropriate for a Board member to meet with a lower level employee and tell him, or even suggest, how he should do his job. The Board hires the company president who hires managers to do that. Maybe school boards are different.

Also, didn't Barb Klausner say Tuesday that the board agreed not to direct Gunn to adopt a particular model? Her notes read like that to me ...giving Gunn "a very broad berth to consider all options, asking only that they consider advisory as one of those many options."
The two don't seem to match up, at least to me.

(Thanks Weekly for publishing notes from the board meeting and getting easily searchable emails about this out to our community.)


Posted by parent, a resident of Escondido School
on Jun 15, 2012 at 4:40 pm

Professional - What I am saying is let the educational professionals set their programs. If we let parents dictate it, nothing would ever happen as we all have our own opinions, many uninformed, mine included. I wouldn't know how to advise on a counseling system, not sure why the WCDBPA folks think they do.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on Jun 15, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The issue is not who gives advice but that decions regarding public policy MUST be made in public and there MUST be an opportunity for public comment BEFORE the decision is made.

Professionals should be 'on tap' not 'on top'.


Posted by Professional, a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 15, 2012 at 8:20 pm

I'll try again. Would you let your contractor decide what rooms to add? They know how to do it far better than you.


Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 15, 2012 at 9:03 pm

I for one have been grateful to the Daubers for their dedication to do exactly as their organization says, better for Palo Alto. It's never comfortable to be pushed out of complacency. I doubt they'd get very far if they were nicey nice. And I much prefer honest and confrontational to manipulative, which has characterized Skelly's term.


Posted by Bill Kelly, a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 16, 2012 at 7:46 am

Curious,

I have no issue with the Board meeting with principals. I have an issue with the Board 'determining' what should be done with a specific department at a specific school. This should be the responsibility of the principal and the superintendent; the board ask questions, and the leaders respond; that's the role of a school board member. It seems to me that we've crossed into a place where the board is offering exact solutions as opposed to listening to a set of recommendations and picking one. This is inappropriate Board work as far as I'm concerned. It makes every administrator and principal look over their shoulder and devalues the work of these people. If individuals on the school board thinks they can do a better job than Skelly, then they should apply for his position.


Posted by Unified district , a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 16, 2012 at 7:58 am

Bill: pausd is a unified district and it is the boatd's job to ensure equally good services for kids at both high schools. We need oversight for that reason not just to "ask questions." it is not a coincidence that Klausner is the only board member who is also a Gunn mom. Or is she now not a Gunn community member either, like the Daubers, the Haussers, all members of WCDB and everyone who wants TA?


Posted by Ken Williams, a resident of Community Center
on Jun 16, 2012 at 8:48 am

Bill -

As I understand it, formally by state law, the board determines policy and the superintendent administers that policy.

Informally, we cannot expect a superintendent to internalize and represent in appropriate proportion, at the right time with appropriate subtlety the educational values of our community. He is a hired hand and the board needs to do that.

We should expect him to understand and implement the board's policy, giving guidance and warning based on his more detailed knowledge of our current capabilities and experience here and elsewhere. It's a demanding job but is well compensated.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on Jun 16, 2012 at 9:49 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"by state law, the board determines policy and the superintendent administers that policy."

And, also by state law, the ENTIRE process of setting policy MUST be done in public and MUST include the opportunity for public comment BEFORE any policy decision is made.


Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 16, 2012 at 10:02 am

And how many of the current Board have been endorsed by the Weekly?

Klausner, and Baten Caswell--
Web Link

Michell, Thom--
Web Link

Townsend--
Web Link


Wonder if the Weekly asked about each candidate's understanding of the Brown Act during its interviews? Wonder if the so-called "Editorial Board" at the Weekly will be digging into the area of California law that Board members need to honor and obey?


Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 16, 2012 at 10:31 am

Professional - for the most part, we do "allow each teacher to determine her own curriculum for every course she teaches".

Unified District - while you may think it is the Boards job to ensure "equally good services for kids at both high schools" that does not happen. We have different core class availability in the high schools (no regular lane of Bio at Paly for example), different electives (Engineering at Gunn but not at Paly). More access to "counseling" at Paly vs. Gunn. To take it further, a dedicated Science building at Escondido but no other elementary schools. Huge field space at Nixon compared to other schools. Access to the Junior Museum and Rinconada Park at Walter Hays, the list goes on...

Our District practices site based management, which is often beneficial but also results in huge inequities and a lack of sharing of best practices.


Posted by Real change, a resident of Terman Middle School
on Jun 16, 2012 at 10:57 am

I don't always agree with the Weekly, Daubers, or their organization, but without them so much of what I have read online and in the released emails would not have been exposed. And all that I have read needed to be exposed, which have brought me to these conclusions:

First, we need some new blood on the board. Barbara Klausner's three-page diatribe Tuesday was necessary and welcome--and way too late. I can only believe that because she, like the others, is up for election in November that she is making a big stink now. She has had her chance, she has done some good work, but it's time to gracefully bow out. The same goes for the rest of the board. They have done some good work, but bringing in new members won't negatively affect the district or its students one bit, and it holds the potential to improve governance. The board talks endlessly and has said nothing (Dana, Barb, Melissa), and since the Weekly called them out on their violations of the Brown Act, they have taken a new defensive stance that does nothing for our children.

Second, Dr. Skelly needs to finish out his contract and move on. A lot of bad things have happened on his watch, and like last week's board meeting, he apologized as he regularly has done over the past five years. This is good behavior for his career, but what does it accomplish for our children? A new superintendent is not a bad thing. He or she can do no worse, but can do better. The Dauber's audacious name of their organization ("better") is true. They can do better. Then again, who couldn't?

Finally, you simply need to ask yourself this question: are your kids better off than they were four or five years ago? My answer is that my kid is doing fine, but not one bit of it is due to district leadership, either the board or Dr. Skelly, and it should not be like that. The test is as easy as that.

Let's not chase them off. Let's simply ask them to leave.


Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 16, 2012 at 11:03 am

My kids are doing WAY better than they were 4-5 years ago. Dr. Skelly has brought on some great principals and staff at the schools. Our schools are not perfect but they are improving. (I have had kids in middle and high school both before and during Dr. Skelly's venture.)

Our BOE is also not perfect - but they are a smart, hardworking and caring group of people who basically volunteer to get yelled at...


Posted by parent, a resident of Escondido School
on Jun 16, 2012 at 11:15 am

I just spent the last two and 1/2 hours reading through some of the recently emails requested by the Daubers. It is clear to me that we need to make at least one change in our district and that is a name change to the Dauber/Stanford Unified School District. The volume of emails is unbelievable. In them they make requests for policy change (without public input) just their own, and they also make requests for agenda items etc. I am hard pressed to understand how any work is getting done by the district because of all the emals the Daubers are sending.
For those requesting that the current board step down and that Mr. Skelly resign, be careful what you wish for. I can't imagine anyone but the Daubers and possibly people from their group being willing to run for school board, particularly if they read through many of the emails that have been sent. I would question any candidate for superintendent for their decision to apply to this district. They would have to be either naive or narcissistic enough to think that they would have the ability to make a difference in this community of strident parents. They would have to be willing to do the Dauber's bidding.
Please read through all the emails, particularly those requested by Michelle Dauber on May 6th. Eye opening.


Posted by ashamed, a resident of Greater Miranda
on Jun 16, 2012 at 11:24 am

I am nothing but ashamed at the behavior of those "we can do better palo alto" members. The May 6th e-mail was disgusting. I am embarrassed to be a Palo Alto resident after reading those e-mails. Just the mere fact that they're attempting to drown the school district in records requests is bad enough. To then treat our public school officials with such contempt and disrespect? I have no patience for that or for them.

I agree we do need to make a change. Let's start with the special interest group WCDBPA and their abuse of our school officials.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on Jun 16, 2012 at 11:30 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"abuse of our school officials."

Remember that this all started because those same school officials abused their public trust by doing the public's business behind closed doors and polite requests to desist lead to nothing.


Posted by Ken Williams, a resident of Community Center
on Jun 16, 2012 at 11:46 am

Ashamed -

You are not ashamed that so much external activity is required to obtain legally obligated visibility but are ashamed that community members take their citizenship obligations seriously?

Whether you agree with their goals or not, this should make you proud, not embarrassed, to be a Palo Alto resident. In this country, we value individual freedom and responsibility and consider the government to be public servants. We are not required to kow-tow to school officials and it is our responsibility to look out for our rights.

Please keep in mind that in general, Palo Alto residents deserve respect just as government employees deserve respect.


Posted by One more mom, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 16, 2012 at 12:05 pm

With all due respect, the abuse of school officials started several years ago, and I am not sure at all the private communication between them predates the practices of WCDBPA and allies. To me, it actually seems like a defensive move to protect themselves against all the abuse they've been subjected to.


Posted by calling sharon's bluff, a resident of Stanford
on Jun 16, 2012 at 12:09 pm

"Wonder if the Weekly asked about each candidate's understanding of the Brown Act during its interviews? Wonder if the so-called "Editorial Board" at the Weekly will be digging into the area of California law that Board members need to honor and obey?"

Considering the recent lack of vetting of Pogue for judge and the failure to properly list the positions of another candidate in the recnt election, the Weekly endorsment policy has become highly suspect. One wonders what drives these endorsments. In another thread Timothy Grey thought it had to do with campaign funding.
I wonder if it has also to do with donations to the Weekly.
Weekly endorsements need to be taken with a large grain of salt.


Posted by Misha, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 25, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Thank you "Gunn Community" for saying exactly what has been on my mind since reading this editorial. The contradictions and biases by the Weekly has only fueled the wildfires stoked by WCDBPA and even in this editorial in which the Weekly attempts to take a high ground and call for cooperation, they praise the Daubers despite their scorched earth tactics and criticize the Gunn community members for speaking up, even when they speak from the same data cited by the Daubers or from real personal experience.

It seems to me that the Weekly has seriously undermined its journalistic credibility and should consider conducting a "lessons learned" and review of first principles to see whether in retrospect it could have done better.

I also challenge the Daubers and members of WCDBPA to run for school board and better appreciate the broad and complex responsibilities of this fiduciary role and the need to work well with others to be effective on behalf of all the students and their families.


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