Palo Alto Weekly
Spectrum - February 21, 2014
Editorial: The Skelly resignation
Appropriately, Palo Alto school superintendent will leave in June
While not a surprise, Superintendent Kevin Skelly's announcement this week that he would leave the district at the end of the school year is a great relief.
Over the last two years, it had become increasingly clear that Skelly's departure was more a question of when, not if. His lack of candor and transparency over the federal civil-rights investigation and settlement agreement relating to bullying at Terman Middle School, coupled with the school board's continued refusal to publicly discuss the problems and to instead plot strategies for resisting the authority of the Department of Education, fueled further controversy and ineffectiveness.
Had the board done its job and not isolated itself by retreating behind the protection of closed doors, perhaps things would have turned out differently.
The timing of Skelly's announcement is a tremendous gift to the community, however, and must not be squandered. It is common, of course, for turnover of school district leaders to occur over the summer. But it is unusual to have this much of a head start, and the school board needs to move immediately to take full advantage of it.
First, it is essential that an independent assessment be made of the district's administrative structure, staffing responsibilities and needs. For those who have had a glimpse of the culture and how things work at 25 Churchill, it is clearly an organization in need of more and better professional management. But it is also not well-structured or adequately staffed to competently accomplish the amount of work the community expects. As a result, too often proposals or reports come to the board without enough thought, preparation or groundwork.
An outside organizational consultant should interview present and former district staff, review the division of responsibilities and make recommendations on how to align staff with needs and expectations. There is no better time to do this than when the conclusions can inform the hiring of a new leader and provide a road map for improvement.
This work can build on the study done seven years ago when a consultant analyzed the mess created by Skelly's predecessor, Mary Frances Callan. Callan's leadership style was nearly the opposite of Skelly's, and she infuriated principals and others with her arrogance and heavy-handedness, leading to an open revolt and her eventual resignation.
The answer was Skelly, a former math teacher, principal at Saratoga High School and associate superintendent in Poway, a district more than twice the size of Palo Alto.
Skelly was appealing for all the reasons that Callan was not. He is a teacher at heart, and loves getting out into the schools, supporting teachers, interacting with kids and celebrating what a great school district we have.
He has successfully overseen a huge school construction program and led the district through substantial budget cuts made necessary by revenue declines due to the Great Recession, while minimizing the impacts on kids and the classroom.
He brought the contrasting experience of having been the principal at a high-achieving school in Saratoga and the administrator at a very diverse district in Poway. Even his harshest critics found him a likeable person without a shred of arrogance.
But he notably lacked any previous background as a superintendent and the attendant experience in leading a complex organization with diverse and demanding stakeholders. And like the board, he was never comfortable with transparency, especially when dealing with controversial issues when it was needed most.
In addition to instituting an internal organizational review, the school board needs to reflect on its own performance, and how to now create a successful search process. This board's defensive, secretive and circle-the-wagons mentality and failure to address the deficiencies of its management team has led to serious doubts about its abilities and has broken the trust of the community. And now this group must hire the next superintendent.
We hope the board will establish a highly diverse and inclusive committee of community members to participate in the selection of the next superintendent. This group should consist of the typical representatives of district principals, teachers and parents, but should especially include those critics who have expressed concerns over governance issues. And given the events and revelations of the last two years, it should most certainly include representation of special education and minority parents.
Hard as it may be, now is the time for the board to meet this challenge head on, let go of its defensiveness and unite the community through real inclusion.
Posted by anon,
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 21, 2014 at 2:57 pm
PA Weekly take note: This is what good people do.
February 21, 2014
Dear fellow PAUSD community members:
While I'm sure my school board colleagues share many of the same sentiments, I am writing to you as an individual, not as their spokesperson. I want to take this moment to thank Kevin Skelly for his compassionate, student-centered, and adept leadership during the past seven years and to express my sense that our school district is losing one of its best champions ever. As you know, Dr. Skelly announced his decision to step away as superintendent effective June 30.
Only one superintendent in the past 40 years has served our public schools longer. Like Newman Walker (1975-85), Dr. Skelly understood the vital, complex, and peppery challenges that come with leading one of our nation's finest public school systems. Former school board president Don Way once explained the role of a PAUSD superintendent this way: "The job description is simple: Walk on water, twice, before breakfast." Despite the high expectations we have, this superintendent has delivered for us with integrity, good humor, and countless impressive results that were indeed what he termed "worthy of the promise and talents of our students."
Casey Stengel once said, "Getting good players is easy. Getting 'em to play together is the hard part." Kevin Skelly has done this "hard part" especially well. I think the Yankee skipper would have indeed admired his empathy, resolve, and ability to explore and fulfill common interests while surrounded by a diverse and expressive cadre of board members, administrators, teachers, parents, students, and community members.
Our community is full of good players - students, administrators, principals, teachers, parents, and homeowners who care deeply about the education and wellbeing of our young people, the excellence of our schools, and the high expectations we have of our school board and district leaders. That is as it should be, and I'd like to share just a few of Kevin Skelly's contributions.
In his first year, back in 2007, Dr. Skelly asked PAUSD stakeholders for their opinions about district services. With help from a highly acclaimed consulting firm, he received over 4,000 responses that led to an array of district-wide initiatives, including a fruitful focus on improving college readiness; an innovative new preschool readiness program for low-income children; a strengthened high school guidance and peer-to-peer support system; increased middle and high school academic electives; a more inspirational structure for teachers to develop and share instructional practices; and 300,000 square feet of much-needed new classrooms, science labs, libraries and athletic facilities. Our superintendent initiated a 360-degree evaluation process to hold himself accountable year after year and robust, user-feedback surveys to monitor district progress through the lens of students, parents, and teachers.
Our students, parents, and teachers are thoughtful judges of district goals, efforts, and results. Last spring, thousands of survey respondents reported 90% parent satisfaction with the education students receive; 84% parent satisfaction with the social-emotional experience of students; 88% student satisfaction with the quality of teachers, and 87% parent satisfaction with home-school communications. Our superintendent's efforts provided the necessary supports for students and teachers to reinforce some of the highest college readiness rates in California, with 85% of this year's senior class meeting rigorous University of California admission requirements (up from 75% in 2008), including an unprecedented 26% of them qualifying as National Merit Commended or Semi-Finalist Scholars. 94% of last year's graduates are attending college.
I want to reaffirm that Dr. Skelly's decision was entirely his. His departure is not what the school board wanted for our school district. He has earned our confidence, respect, and gratitude during every evaluation period throughout his seven years of service, and full support for every contract extension. We had good reason to draw such conclusions.
As one who graduated, whose husband graduated, and whose four children graduated from our exceptional public school system, I can opine with conviction that there has never been a better time to be a student in PAUSD. That is in no small measure due to the steadfast contributions of our superintendent and the time and talents of the principals, teachers, and parents in our schools.
Moving forward, the school board will review its successful 2007 superintendent search process and promptly develop a timeline and process to recruit and select an outstanding individual to lead our school district going forward. We will invite your participation as we solicit community input over the next month on the specific attributes that you seek in our next superintendent.
As my school board colleagues and I look forward to serving our students, families, and district staff in the coming months, please join us in recognizing Kevin Skelly for the energy and talent that he fostered here for our schools.
President, Board of Education
Palo Alto Unified School District
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