News

Editorial: It's the secrecy, stupid

School superintendent works behind board's back to advance new 'innovative' high school

To help keep then-candidate Bill Clinton focused on the poor condition of the U.S. economy in his 1992 presidential campaign against George H.W. Bush, campaign manager James Carville posted what became a famous sign in the campaign headquarters: "The economy, stupid."

Variations on the phrase have since become commonplace in American politics and in corporate executive suites to remind leaders of how losing focus can undermine important work or create a crisis in trust and confidence.

Palo Alto school Superintendent Max McGee needs to post a few "It's the secrecy, stupid" signs around his office after the revelation that he actively participated behind the scenes in the creation of a lengthy foundation grant proposal for a new "radically innovative" high school in Palo Alto.

The proposal was submitted last month without the approval or knowledge of the school board, and without any public disclosure or discussion. It came to light only because the group behind it created a Facebook page to encourage the public to lobby the school board to support a new school. The posting of the proposal spurred McGee to mention it to the board in a routine weekly update memo on Nov. 20.

For a leader who repeatedly has urged others to avoid creating unnecessary controversies and distractions that drain time and energy and create avoidable conflict, McGee's undisclosed collaboration with a self-selected group of parents, educators from the Stanford Graduate School of Education and the Stanford 'd' (design) school to fashion a proposal for a new public high school is a serious breach of trust that will be difficult to repair.

McGee's judgment in signing on as one of 16 "team" members of the "Wayfinder School" is even more puzzling given the application's portrayal of the school district as a place that is failing on multiple fronts to provide a successful educational environment.

Citing the "serious mental health issues that plague Palo Alto students" the proposal states, "We must do something to create a school (and community) culture that values the mental health of our students -- not just pay lip service to it -- and this starts from truly understanding the needs of our students and including them every step of the way."

The proposal outlines in detail how the proposed new school "will offer a guide for how others might also start a truly innovative school within a traditional district."

It would be unfair to attribute every word in the long application to McGee, but according to multiple sources he initiated the effort to prepare the proposal, provided input, reviewed drafts and formally signed on as a member of the submission team. His enthusiasm for the idea was evident to everyone involved, and he has sought support for it without divulging the existence of the grant application, all while maintaining publicly that he hasn't yet decided on whether he will recommend a new secondary school to the community.

McGee and the others behind the application (which include all five members of a subcommittee McGee formed to study enrollment trends in the secondary schools) say that the application was nothing more than a "place holder" that had to be quickly created over three weeks in order to meet a Nov. 15 deadline for the national XQ Super School competition. (According to the XQ website, the actual submission deadline is in February; Nov. 15 was merely an optional deadline to receive informal feedback from the foundation.)

When the Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC) secondary school subcommittee addressed the school board on Nov. 10, no one revealed that all its members were actively engaged, with McGee, in preparing the Wayfinder application that would be submitted the following week.

The entire enrollment committee's work lacked transparency from the beginning. A district web page set up in April promised meeting notices, agendas and minutes but contained just two items posted from October relating to elementary enrollment until Thursday night, when the recommendations and letter from the secondary school subcommittee were added. The committee didn't include any teachers, principals or students, or representatives of any parent groups. Insufficient interest in serving on the committee led McGee to take everyone who applied. While the small group of parent volunteers worked hard and developed some valuable and helpful data, it strayed significantly from its purpose of examining district enrollment patterns and projections.

The needs of our school district as described in the Wayfinder proposal are real, and the interest in bringing innovative reforms to our secondary schools is exciting and worthy of much discussion and action. Unfortunately, Superintendent McGee's lack of transparency has created a mess that must first be repaired. That must start with apologies to the board, EMAC committee members and the public, and his acknowledgment that secrecy is the enemy of democracy.

And some signs around the office wouldn't be a bad idea either.

Related content:

Undisclosed new-school proposal sparks dissent

Who worked on the XQ application?

Comments

87 people like this
Posted by Barron Park parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 4, 2015 at 7:39 am

Yes, the Superintendent should have informed the Board.

But the bigger picture is this: community members on their own personal time applied for a "qualifying submission" in order to secure a placeholder for future FREE MONEY if the Board decided to open a new secondary school. That seems laudable to me.

I understand that the XQ people reached out to the Superintendent after reading about the October 26 board meeting in the Palo Alto Weekly, where the enrollment committee shared their initial thinking. The deadline for the initial submission was November 15, so obviously not a lot of time to get something into the XQ folks.

And there is no obligation to continue with the XQ formal application process, which is sometime in March. But apparently November 15 was a qualifying round: take it or lose out forever. Seems smart to me to reserve a place in line EVEN IF the Board and the community decide not to proceed with a new secondary school.

And the enrollment committee and the XQ initiative are 2 completely separate efforts.

I honestly think this is a big ado about nothing. Some folks are just spreading FUD while glossing over the fact that our secondary schools can be improved. Private money is wonderful, if we can get it.

P.S. - I'm getting some of this info from here: Web Link


80 people like this
Posted by Ready for progress
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 4, 2015 at 8:28 am

Oh please, please, please let's not let politics and conspiracy theory get in the way of a good idea (again)!

How can you just say "according to multiple sources" without backing that up? "Some people say..." No. Name your sources.

I applaud Max McGee for even considering making a bold move in a city like Palo Alto which is certainly not light on its feet when it comes to making changes. We need to make big changes to better align our too-traditional education system with current and future needs and practices.

I don't understand the need to call out our superintendent for applying for grant money. I don't see how this is a bad idea - it does not oblige the district to make any decision, but rather keeps the option of a new (badly needed) school on the table. Everyone here is just trying to do their best by our kids. Let's not lose that perspective.


34 people like this
Posted by WhenOpportunityKnocks
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 4, 2015 at 8:36 am

Tempest in a teapot.


19 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 4, 2015 at 8:44 am

Fire McGee.


46 people like this
Posted by Cheese and Rice!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 4, 2015 at 8:51 am

Whatever happened to transparency, Max?


16 people like this
Posted by It's the TRUST stupid
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 4, 2015 at 9:29 am

Actually, this situation is pretty harmless. The district already had a serious problem with secrecy and untrustworthy behavior by personnel who have never been discouraged from said behavior but instead have been rewarded for doing a better job covering their tracks. That is doing completely unmonitored harm to vulnerable children and families that no new school will ever address.

I'm disappointed instead in the scope of this editorial. Is the district answering the Weekly's questions and record requests? I'll bet they are, since this new administrator is much better at fawning. But they don't answer ours. They haven't for years. They completely flaunt all records laws at the state and federal level, much worse than even during the Skelly years.

Saying "It's the secrecy, stupid" is akin to Clinton having picked a small aspect of the economy and neglected everything else, perhaps saying "It's the junk bonds, stupid!" Secrecy is only one small aspect of the bigger core issue of trust which remains unaddressed. It's not that McGee isn't focusing enough, he's doing nothing or, unchecked by the fourth estate, making it worse. (And I don't mean this situation.)

No, the Weekly should make two signs, one for McGee and one for their own office: "It's the TRUST, Stupid!"


38 people like this
Posted by educator and parent
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 4, 2015 at 10:27 am

This seems to be creating controversy where there isn't any.
I've worked in education for 20+ years and I find Dr. McGee to be extremely transparent in his work and genuine in his desire to support all students in PAUSD.
He clearly wasn't being secretive if he put his name on the preliminary application. A placeholder makes sense for a district that is not on the same timeline as a foundation that can potentially help the district innovate with significant monetary support.
This looks like a contrived controversy to me.
Research is clear that schools should look different than they currently do. Investigating the options for PAUSD to provide an alternative that is more aligned with current research is a no-brainer. Let's stop the bickering and get to work.


25 people like this
Posted by Choice or Not
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 4, 2015 at 10:41 am

Let's hope this "Wayfinder School" idea does not distract from addressing the broader problems of the entire school district. And who doesn't like adding the accomplishment of some new venture on to their track records?

However, the name of it makes you wonder whether it creates stigma for student admitted to it because it targets the "wayfinders", or whether it further enhances the stress for future students striving to get in because it is an elitist school.


38 people like this
Posted by Heidi Kling
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 4, 2015 at 10:59 am

A new, innovative high school is exactly what this community needs. If the board doesn't want to push for it, I'm happy to see that our superintendent does. I'm a huge supporter of this idea. So many wonderful, long-term and invested families (Little League coaches, teachers, avid volunteers) are moving out of the area because of the Gunn crisis. It's a terrible shame. I think many families would stay, or at least consider staying, if we had another high school option for our children. The middle schoolers we know are scared to death to attend Gunn. They all talk about it. Even one of my son's friends, who comes from a very strict household, said his parents are moving the family to another city because Gunn is too stressful. These are kids who have been together since kindergarten and we are being forced to move because we're so worried for our kids' mental health? This is not okay.

Instead of fighting and badmouthing Max, why don't we get together and fix this?

At the launch party for my novel PAINT MY BODY RED, which was inspired by the horrific suicide cluster (the first cluster six years ago) I had parents literally grab me by the arms with fear in their eyes and say, "Move before your kids are in high school." Is this how we want to live? Let's try and fix things before it's too late; before we lose anymore kids. I love so many things about our community, but I want change. A fresh start. So does Max McGee.


15 people like this
Posted by It's the TRUST Stupid
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 4, 2015 at 11:05 am

@educator and parent,
I, too, find McGee genuinely interested in making his mark in a positive way. I also think this situation is a tempest in a tea pot. But I also have found the administration run with far less openness where there are problems, and more acumen about giving unde appearance of doing things properly even when they are not and when children are hurt. I don't think it starts with McGee, he inherited it, but he's also doing nothing about it and seems to think things swept under the rug will stay there.


10 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 4, 2015 at 11:05 am

This is a distraction. And a self-promotion gig for the organizers.


25 people like this
Posted by Open and Transparent
a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 4, 2015 at 11:26 am

If the XQ application was to secure our place in line, why not be open about it from the very beginning or as soon as McGee was aware of its submission? McGee is not a rookie and he is not being paid like one. I agree with the editorial that is was an amateurish move, regardless of intent. Palo Alto deserves better.

I disagree with those who seem to think the ends justifies the means.


4 people like this
Posted by Play It Again Sam
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 4, 2015 at 11:29 am

Let's MoveOn.org


26 people like this
Posted by Educator
a resident of Woodside
on Dec 4, 2015 at 11:44 am

Educator is a registered user.

As a former school board member in another district, I would be extremely concerned that the Superintendent withheld information that affects operations and teaching and learning within the District. It leads me to wonder what else he is hiding from the Trustees.

There is no excuse for a Superintendent to withhold information from the Trustees, as such a move eventually creates a complete lack of trust, which provides for a very difficult working relationship. If a lack of trust develops among the trustees, then they may determine it is appropriate to hire a new and more transparent Superintendent.


28 people like this
Posted by It's the TRUST Stupid
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 4, 2015 at 12:01 pm

@Educator,
Oversight has never been our district's strong suit.


13 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 4, 2015 at 12:17 pm

Maybe the board doesn't want to know. Then, if it blows up, they can claim deniability and the supe takes the fall. It's all part of McGee's unwritten job description.


24 people like this
Posted by Robert Smith
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 4, 2015 at 12:19 pm

If these facts hold true after scrutiny, the superintendent should either resign or be replaced.

It is completely unacceptable for this to have been done behind even the board's back.

I am sorry to have to say this.


37 people like this
Posted by Diane Reklis
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 4, 2015 at 2:23 pm

There was no conspiracy to work behind the backs of our school board. It is no secret that our superintendent is interested in thinking about opening a new high school. When given the opportunity to partner with Stanford University to think through what this might look like and to develop a concept plan as a place-holder for a very large grant, Dr. McGee was all ears. The first deadline was less than 3 weeks away and he was busy, so he provided contact information for members of the community that he knew would be interested and the XQ concept plan became a reality. Dr. McGee made a mistake and failed to notify the board that this was happening. It would have been a much bigger mistake if he had turned his back on the possibility of many millions of dollars and the opportunity to work together with Stanford for the good of all our high school students and teachers. I cringe to think of that possibility slipping away, not to mention the damning headlines if Dr. McGee had not acted. We are lucky to have such an enthusiastic superintendent who embraces innovation in addition to the district’s storied past.


40 people like this
Posted by a little positivity please
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 4, 2015 at 2:34 pm

This is not a betrayal. Or highly secretive maneuvering. Turning in a placeholder application under a tight deadline to POTENTIALLY access large sums of private money for the benefit of the school district is a GOOD MOVE! Thanks to those who were on the ball and committed enough to do this.

And seriously, Heidi, PLEASE stop with the horrific fear-mongering. Attending Gunn High School is not death sentence. This kind of talk is a HUGE disservice to the thousands of students, alumni, and staff members who are proud to be members of the school. (Yes, there have been tragedies and they should not be ignored. But at the same time the desperate actions of a few individuals should not be allowed to define the entire institution.)

This community is so BLESSED. What we really need is a dose of GRATITUDE and perspective!
Gratitude for prosperity, peace, safety, freedom, dedicated educators, committed parents, engaged youngsters ... The list goes on and on ...

So, Yes, pursue innovation. Work to improve. But not by creating unnecessary discord first.


41 people like this
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 4, 2015 at 3:51 pm

This is a so darn silly, and the Palo Alto Weekly is not improving its credibility or gravitas by exaggerating this so-called "controversy". Would it have been better if Dr. McGee has told the community in advance? Yes. But so what? As far as I cn tell, this XQ thing is merely a placeholder to potentially get free private money and doesn't commit the District to ANYTHING. I can't imagine what the Palo Alto Weekly headlines would have been if Dr. McGee has completely missed the deadline!

Here is the bigger issue (to me): Folks are claiming that the District’s current middle schools and high schools can easily accommodate the number of students we have, now and into the foreseeable future.... partially because the District has recently spent $50M on the middle schools and $200M on the high schools toward that end.

The community really needs to urge the PAUSD Board to authorize a task force if only to inspect this claim. If what the EMAC team says is true, the our kids will be in deep trouble a few years from now:

The EMAC folks wrote in their open letter to the Board:

"EMAC-SSS believes these capital improvements were necessary simply because our secondary schools were so under-capitalized over the past 30 years, due in part of the effects of Prop 13. By no means do we regard these investments as "wasted" even if we chose to open another secondary school or schools. A careful analysis of the $200M bond money spent shows that only a minority fraction was spent on expanding the number of classrooms we have in our middle and high schools."

"The true enrollment capacity of Paly and Gunn is an area of concern because our high school enrollment is expected to increase by an additional 700 students by 2020 compared to 2015, from 3900 to 4600 students. EMAC-SSS has made repeated efforts to vet the District’s “stated capacity” numbers for Paly and Gunn (i.e., each can supposedly accommodate ~2300 students when construction is done). Three members of the EMAC-SSS have engineering degrees and possess an analytical mindset, and yet we could NOT confirm that assertion unless we made some arduous assumptions. We recommend pursuing this line of inquiry harder, as EMAC-SSS has doubts as to whether the District’s stated capacity numbers are rooted in reality, in the schools."

"For example, Paly and Gunn are able to hold just over 2300 students each (i.e., the District’s stated capacity) if and only if you accept 3 assumptions: (1) run capacity at 100%, (2) average classroom size of 28.5 students, and (3) many classrooms are used 6 out of 7 periods. If the Board wanted to go to 27.5 instead, you lose space for 70 students, or equivalently you will need 3 more classrooms at each school. Or if the Board wanted to run at a more reasonable 95% of capacity and a 27.5 ratio, now Paly and Gunn can enroll ~200 fewer students than the Stated Capacity. And all of this still assumes many classrooms being occupied 6 out of 7 periods -- which means some teachers will not have their own classroom for prep and collaboration space, and also likely limiting space for teacher-student office hours."

"Said another way, there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between the perceived capacity of the school and the actual situation on the ground at each school. The potential result is a false sense of precision and a false confidence in the District’s stated capacity figures for each school."


36 people like this
Posted by Dave
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 4, 2015 at 4:18 pm

Perhaps the PA Weekly author of this article could identify him or herself - in the interest of transparency, stupid.


6 people like this
Posted by Boys in the Girls Room
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 4, 2015 at 4:24 pm

[Post removed.]


Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Barron Park

on Dec 4, 2015 at 4:38 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?


14 people like this
Posted by another teacher
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 4, 2015 at 4:52 pm

@Diane Reklis wrote "Dr. McGee made a mistake and failed to notify the board that this was happening. It would have been a much bigger mistake if he had turned his back on the possibility of many millions of dollars and the opportunity to work together with Stanford for the good of all our high school students and teachers. I cringe to think of that possibility slipping away, not to mention the damning headlines if Dr. McGee had not acted. We are lucky to have such an enthusiastic superintendent who embraces innovation in addition to the district's storied past."

I don't know if you have gold rush fever or if you were always had judgment this bad. But what you wrote above is nonsense. Max McGee's job is to report to the board, and to allow the board to make decisions like whether or not to invest district resources (including his time) in pursuing this contest or not. Failing to submit a contest application with a .01% chance of winning is not a "much bigger mistake" than lying to the board. And you frankly should be ashamed of your own performance, coming to the board meeting and sitting there quiet as a churchmouse knowing full well that the board had no idea about the fact that you were already all way down the road on planning the new school and the board was completely in the dark.

The sad thing about this Diane, is that this board would probably have backed this idea if they were told about it and given the chance. You decided to keep them in the dark and not give them the chance to weigh in because you didn't want to risk hearing "no." What you think of the board and what Max thinks of the board is in the XQ application. You were trying to pull a fast one and you got caught out. You sat there mum's the word and now you want to say it wasn't your job to tell the board. Well it was. [Portion removed.]

To the application -- this isn't real money. For goodness sake there are going to be 10K applications to this contest, and 5 winners. If you win you get 2 million per year for 5 years at most. That is 1% of the PAUSD budget. That was not worth Max losing his job over which is probably the direction this is going to go.

[Portion removed.] I blame you because as a former elected official you should have known better. And you should have not pulled that stunt with your letter that violates the Brown Act by telling board members what the other members said in your private meetings either. [Portion removed.]


19 people like this
Posted by Boys in the Girls Room
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 4, 2015 at 5:18 pm

I have a very simple point.

On October 26, the EMAC presented its desire for a new school to the board.

On October 27, according to McGee, Laurene Jobs contacted Professor Jo Boaler and asked if PAUSD wanted to apply to XQ. Boaler contacted Max.

Max then decided to have the EMAC write the proposal and they spent three weeks frantically writing.

On November 3 there was a special board meeting on the budget at which this could have been on the agenda.

On November 10 there was a regular board meeting at which it could have been on the agenda (that's the board meeting where Reklis just sat there and said nothing when Romer put up a slide about XQ without telling the board that guess what hey we're entering that contest)

Max clearly could have informed the board about it. He had 2 chances. They had 2 meetings -- they could have taken action, and not only that, but they could have read it, heard about it, and given feedback even without official action. There was absolutely no reason on earth that couldn't have happened. If Max felt he needed action, they could have waived the 2 meeting rule to give him authority to do the contest application on either of those 2 days.

Had he asked, they might well have.

The idea that there was no time to tell the board is just completely wrong, given the timeline. There was more than enough opportunity and in fact that reason this is so culpable is that there were these multiple board meetings happening when the board and public could have been informed. This didn't happen in July when the board was out of session and Max had to make a decision when he couldn't reach anyone. No one was at the North Pole or trekking in Nepal. Get real.

[Portion removed.]


17 people like this
Posted by It's the TRUST Stupid
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 4, 2015 at 7:23 pm

People have their priorities screwed up. Where is the concern for laws being broken in maintenance of student records, complying with the law in providing releases, etc? In a district with so many depressed students, this could be downright dangerous. It's an issue that, frankly, McGee could really use some help with or it will hurt him down the road and he has no idea. No one cares about the real problem here and are raking McGee over the coals for a tempest in a teapot.


3 people like this
Posted by Max
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Dec 4, 2015 at 7:53 pm

You make it sound like there's a conspiracy. It's possible to get so hung up on "full public disclosure" and "complete public consensus" of everything big and little that you never get anything done. It's called death by committee ..........


Posted by Name hidden
a resident of East Palo Alto

on Dec 4, 2015 at 8:01 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?


21 people like this
Posted by haven't forgotten
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 4, 2015 at 9:01 pm

There were plenty of reasons the Brown Act came into existence. The comments above remind me of the anti comments back then, of so many people committed to the idea of "nah, can't happen here."


28 people like this
Posted by Patrick C
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 5, 2015 at 1:13 am

This man actively [portion removed] misled, and betrayed the trust of the elected governing authority not to mention the parents and children of this district. This is not subject to dispute. I find it staggeringly disappointing that residents would give this man a pass for such plainly egregious and unacceptable behavior for a public servant. It is remarkable and frankly embarrassing that residents would casually dismiss and minimize such misconduct by repeating Mr McGee's plainly false assertion that the application was a mere "placeholder." This "placeholder," secretly conceived in an obvious attempt to avoid scrutiny and oversight by those elected by the people, merely seeks an unprecedented and radical alteration to the district's structure, policies and priorities with no input from the families our school's serve... Oh and it also just happens to advance the personal and professional ambitions and interests of the superintendent and the small clique of his fellow "visionary innovators." Ah well, maybe such quaint notions of honesty, transparency and integrity must give way in the our City's present culture, one built on the fast grab for luchre in the name of being "disruptive."


1 person likes this
Posted by Editorial Bias
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Dec 5, 2015 at 7:43 am

[Post removed.]


16 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 5, 2015 at 2:49 pm

Dear Fellow Onliners,

I believe that the composition of the EMAC secondary subcommittee (which has thus far planned the new Cubberly school and the changes to be made at Gunn and Paly) has never been candidly put forth or explained.

I've thought it odd that, while half the subcommittee consists of high-tech executives, there is no PAUSD educator included in the planning group, nor any specialists in school reform, school curriculum, or school design.

I agree with the Weekly that Superintendent McGee owes us a great deal more clarity.

Even then, though, we'd be wise to "wait and see." During his tenure so far, Mr. McGee's foundational convictions have often been obscure and it's been hard to know which of his statements to take to the bank.

In October, Mr. McGee stalled his own momentum on hiring in-house counsel. In September, he proclaimed cheating in our high schools a problem of "premier importance," but at the next board meeting brushed it aside, saying he's learned of no "outright cheating," only minor infractions.

Last April he went back on a promise to Gunn students to hear them out on zero period. At a March board meeting, after a reference to the "dark hour" of the previous day's suicide, his Superintendent's Report was given over to awards and tributes, joking and banter.

For months, Mr. McGee failed to initiate a legally-required Uniform Complaint Procedure in a case of possible sexual harassment. In February, he staged a public forum with a panel of experts billed as "Let's Talk: A Community Conversation," but the audience arrived -- after the school year's third death -- to find an event structured to prevent them from uttering a word.

And regularly last school year he called for "an expanded definition of success" for our students (one less focused on high achievement) even as, in front of the Board room cameras, he celebrated high-schoolers who had excelled nationally and internationally.

The Weekly and Ms. Kadvany are to be celebrated for shining a spotlight into the behind-the-scenes dark. We're well-served by a vigorous scrutiny of this dramatically ambitious project, and of the beliefs and convictions of those who are advancing it, before any expensive blueprints are drawn up or the "Building for the Future" construction signs are in place.

Sincerely,

Marc Vincenti
Gunn English Dept. (1995-2010)
Campaign Coordinator
Save the 2,008
-- creating hope for Palo Alto's high-schoolers


6 people like this
Posted by Concerned Parent
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Dec 5, 2015 at 3:08 pm

First of all, your analogy is inapt. If you want to allude to the Clinton campaign's focus on the economy, you should have titled the editorial "It's the transparency, stupid." Unless I missed the point of the article, and the editors are suggesting that Superintendent McGee should focus his attention on improving secrecy.

As to the substance of the criticism, it's a big nothingburger and if this "controversy" derails efforts to bring bold and innovative ideas to the Palo Alto public school system, then I guess it will be clear that as a community we're not all that interested in doing much to alleviate the substantial stress and academic pressure we place on our kids, regardless what that stress and pressure lead to.


11 people like this
Posted by Calm Down
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 5, 2015 at 4:27 pm

@ Heidi Kling

"The middle schoolers we know are scared to death to attend Gunn. They all talk about it."

"At the launch party for my novel PAINT MY BODY RED, which was inspired by the horrific suicide cluster (the first cluster six years ago) . . . "

Perhaps your middle schooler is scared to attend high school, but that is a false and sensationalist statement to make about all middle schoolers. It's irresponsible and presumptuous for anyone, including a published author, to speak on behalf all students. My middle school and high school students do not feel in the least the way you have represented all students as feeling (scared to death of going to high school and miserable once they are there). My middle schooler is excited to attend high school. My high schooler is having a positive experience at Paly. My high schooler is also tired of overly dramatic parents saying all students hate high school in Palo Alto and are in crisis and need a fresh start. In addition, [portion removed] you state that families are all moving because of the "Gunn crisis" (I can only assume that's a euphemism for the suicides). It's not true. School populations are increasing, not decreasing, hence the EMAC to address the increase. [Portion removed.]


18 people like this
Posted by It's the TRUST Stupid
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 5, 2015 at 6:44 pm

@Heidi and Down,
I think there is truth in both of your posts. The situation of all students is not homogeneous. Many students are doing fine. Many are stressed. Some are vulnerable and falling through the cracks. In that case, we found some district personnel engage in opening the crack wider to shove families out, and enlisting the help of school staff to stomp on their hands when they are down and trying to hang on. McGee has shown no interest in dealing with that or even hearing about it and investigating. It will take more people willing to complain and who don't care about endless retaliation. I can only shake my head at the energy people are putting into this Wayfinder tempest in a teapot and the lack of it into situations that hurt children and create such district liability. It's the TRUST. Public schools serve ALL students, and should be safe and welcoming for ALL, and the administrator should care when families feel they can't turn to district personnel because of untrustworthy, unsafe and retaliatory behavior. I hope the new school IS a charter.


4 people like this
Posted by Do Your Homework
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 7, 2015 at 9:37 am

Opening a new high school or middle school because our growing city population demands more real estate is valid. The EMAC and School Board, if we let them do their jobs, will determine what's appropriate based on thorough analysis.

However, saying we need to open a new high school because the two high schools we have are failing our kids is hyperbolic and false. Anyone should do their homework before saying we need a fresh start. Educate yourselves about the fabulous, innovative programs we already have at the high schools that students experiencing: like the Sports Career Pathway at Paly, or the Social Justice Pathway at Paly, or the Nationally Ranked Journalism Program at Paly. Kids LOVE these programs, admire their teachers, and are clamoring to get into these classes. These programs are creative and innovative programs with fantastic teachers who take advantage of many incredible local resources (like Stanford). Folks should do their homework and understand the innovative programs we have in place at our middle and high schools with very dedicated, smart, creative teachers working hard to serve their students.


21 people like this
Posted by Secrecy
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Dec 7, 2015 at 10:34 am

District secrecy now should not be surprising. District did the same thing in May-June 2015 presenting a reorganization at the end of the school year so few of the public were aware of it. Palo Alto Weekly records requests show a Board of Education member discussed it in closed session as far back as March. After the school year ended the Administration revealed it already chose the employee to promote before the reorganization was approved. This set off a chain of promotions and hirings for some of the most sensitive jobs (behaviorists, counseling, attendance) without opening them to outside competitors for the best candidates.

The Superintendent is now delaying the final EMAC recommendations until January due what he says is a need to incorporate new surveys responses. But didn't the Administration know before it was giving surveys and when results would come in? Survey responses don't appear suddenly from thin air. This is similar to delaying hiring an attorney after the Superintendent was "disappointed" in the Board's discussion of it. The Palo Alto Weekly could not get much of a response from the Superintendent about why he did this, other than it would delay the decision until the Board members did not feel as strongly. In last two school year Board meetings and the two summer retreats, the Board asked the Superintendent to return with answers to questions. When the items came up again on the Board Agenda in Fall, they did not appear to answer the Board's questions but instead changed the reorganization and who the lawyer reported to. It was understandable this required a rigorous discussion of the change by the Board, which disappointed the Superintendent.

A similar process was the Board expressed concern in the summer retreats about hiring a public relation official. Unfortunately, the District never documented the Board's member concerns and statements made in Retreats. The Minutes of these meetings do not detail what was said, just a brief statement the meeting was held to discuss brought topics. Without proper Minutes, the public cannot know what was said. The District did not record the meetings. The Palo Alto Weekly did record the retreats, but they are not posted on the District web site. The public would need to know they exist elsewhere and how to search for them in a newspaper site.

Minutes of Board Retreats and EMAC meetings should be provided by the District. They are official District proceedings and part of our democratic process.


8 people like this
Posted by Secrecy
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Dec 7, 2015 at 12:54 pm

The Board of Education Agenda shows an increase of an additional $78,000 to conduct a review of Special Education. This review was only to cost $39,000, bringing the total cost to $117,000. The budget request changes the name from the Independent Special Education Review to the "Harvard Review", obscuring the fact that this is the same evaluation at triple the cost. Web Link (see Item 14, Page 3).

This evaluation is concerning because of the increasing costs and because the employees being evaluated selected the organization to evaluate them.

The budget request now says:
Special Education Program Review ($78,000): The Harvard Review is in progress. There is additional cost of $78,000 to complete the review. We anticipated that the Harvard Review will make recommendations to strengthen our inclusive practices and develop a system to assure closer connections with parents and the extended community.

The expense and scope is creeping upward, now adding a system to assure connections with parents and extended community. It's questionable the Harvard Review should do this. More appropriate is perhaps a communications firm, or just plain better management in the District. Before spending money on a study, the District needs to work to resolve simpler problems that parents already reported to the Board again and again. These include failure to respond to e-mails and phone calls before the 7th request, rude letters with factual errors from District staff, opaqueness and secrecy.

Once this review is completed, the District will be stuck with it. It will affect all families in the District for years into the future. It is too important. to conduct this way.

Two public meetings were held, but only after the contractor was hired. These were advertised as very limited "coffees" which District materials said were for promoting the contractor's book. Not all families could take off work to attend on short notice, and the purpose of these meetings was confusing. Families were told to write to the study team, but it's hard to know what to write about since it's not clear what the meetings addressed or what the study is about.

There was no public process or public Board of Education discussion prior to hiring the contractor. The Superintendent announced it in a retreat, but this was not recorded or documented in meeting minutes. The only other information was from Palo Alto Weekly article. Caution is needed after Special Education legal fees increased dramatically in past years under the same management. The Board of Education should pause and determine what information the Board of Education needs evaluated and obtain inclusive parent and faculty and staff input. The Board should decide the scope and cost of the study, and then conduct competitive bidding to find the best contractor. The contractor needs to be accountable to the Board of Education, not the staff being evaluated.


21 people like this
Posted by But, But
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Dec 7, 2015 at 7:50 pm

When the Chinese government and banks come looking to foreclose on the buyers who borrowed millions to buy homes here, and never repaid a dime, won't the schools be drained of a huge number of students anyway?..


20 people like this
Posted by It's the TRUST Stupid
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 7, 2015 at 9:44 pm

"Before spending money on a study, the District needs to work to resolve simpler problems that parents already reported to the Board again and again. These include failure to respond to e-mails and phone calls before the 7th request, rude letters with factual errors from District staff, opaqueness and secrecy."

@Secrecy,
X1,000,000!

"Rude letters with factual errors" That's the understatement (or euphemism) of the year...

Those "errors" start to feel like an assault, especially since the district has an interesting habit of sending them to parents signed receipt on Friday afternoons and just before holidays. (Go into insurance or telemarketing please and get AWAY from children!)


12 people like this
Posted by Secrecy
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Dec 8, 2015 at 2:31 pm

@ It's the Trust Stupid - the District sending registered mail to parents is a waste of money. Requiring signatures for mail from families who can't be at home is wasteful. Parents are out working to pay the school District property taxes or taking children to medical appointments. The District only does it when it wants something from the family. It does become harassing. In contrast, responses to parent question are sent only via e-mail, if ever responded to at all.
The Registered Mail creates an extreme hardship for families who have to go track down an open post office or take off work. It's expensive. It's silly.


15 people like this
Posted by It's the TRUST Stupid
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 8, 2015 at 9:04 pm

@Secrecy,
Speaking of insurance, it is remarkable how many of the tactics resemble the well-hones tactics of insurance companies against vulnerable policyholders in loss negotiations, including the "error"-ridden rude letters. The tactics are designed to induce stress while appearing unintentional, and to win regardless of who is right. It is only one reason we should hire county counsel. District legal should serve families and children, not administrators' personal interests.

It's interesting how even the people at school level seem coached in the same language and tactics, parsing words in emails and dealing in secret behind the scenes, without giving families any idea of what they and their child are up against. It's disgusting and wrong for children to be dealt with like this.


8 people like this
Posted by Secrecy
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Dec 8, 2015 at 11:47 pm

@It's the Trust Stupid:
Yes, you are accurate that all the District staff are coached on legal tactics before meetings to say the same thing. PAUSD staff follow practices established by the District's law firm. Their legal firm also publishes guide books and trains at conferences. It trains the District staff in tactics on how to avoid answering parent questions, overwhelming families by having extra unneeded attendees, scheduling "surprise" employees to pop into a meeting to cause a distraction, interrupting families and having employees all talk at once so parents cannot speak, then writing in records (the few they keep) that parents were given every opportunity to have questions addressed. Another tactic the District uses is to insist families attend "Informal Meetings" because they cannot be recorded and the family and child have no protection or rights. That is why, as other posters have written in this forum, District staff badgers parents to attend unrecorded meetings. Families should not attend these meetings, and should record all meetings.

PAUSD's law firm trains staff to lay a groundwork to ensure the District has maximum ability to file legal action against the disabled at a later time. The District has it's targets for legal action, and last year it targets disabled families at a particular school. There was a new principal in a relatively weak position and without the background on PAUSD Special Education politics to stand up against Special Education. Contrary to what it portrays, the District initiated the cases against the disabled families and created the expenses. When cases are dismissed or settled, the District is not saving money. The District created the expense and now has to get out of it before it goes to a Hearing, where evidence will be made public in a judge's ruling.

Also, the Board of Education set a tone last year that sent the message to its staff that attacking disabled with legal action would be condoned, especially by accusing families of their bullied disabled students, as well as the Federal government, of perjury. The Board and Administration established an 'us - against - them' District culture, and sent a clear message to employees to be adversarial to the disabled. The Superintendent also sent a message by ridiculing parents for not filing formal complaints against the District, and for not filing anonymous complaints, saying it meant there were no problems. Families who worked hard to solve problems with staff directly and through channels could not win under this ridicule. No matter what they did, they were ridiculed for having disabled children and doing what the District told them to.

The District's law firm also provides the District form software to write accusatory and inaccurate letters and e-mails. Some of the documents full of errors are actually written by the law firm itself, presumably with highly paid lawyers who skipped out on their legal writing and proofreading classes. Ultimately, though, the District's Board condones this behavior and poor quality of work for high payments by paying the law firm to do it. The Administrators who send the rude attacking e-mails and letters to families with inaccurate statements are responsible for their own actions, even if their lawyer gives them form software and guidebooks on how to do it.

Families often ask why Special Education and the Assistant Superintendent over it is so rude and adversarial, even in writing where it can be tracked. The Board does not have time to review their employees work, and senior Administrators accept what their employees say and do not contact families. Legal files only contain the material Administrators want to be seen, and records are hard to come by.

What is most important for District families to know is the District has attorneys working against families at all times. Sadly, this means families should always have their own attorney to protect children.

@It's the Trust Stupid - thank you for writing and helping families with insightful information about real experiences with this system. The only way to protect children in the District is if victims speak up and come out of the shadows.


9 people like this
Posted by It's the TRUST Stupid
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 9, 2015 at 9:32 am

@Secrecy,
The backbiting at the district level, through site personnel, seriously impacts students and families every day.

Please, if you have evidence of the above, bring it to the authorities. Just print out your post and attach evidence. You can be anonymous. In our experience, the administration continues to undermine students they don't like with disabilities every day. I know more than one student really traumatized by the cumulative effects of this. (Whole families, really.) The new administration is not better, just more deliberate about covering it over, so families know they have no recourse. You are right that upper mgmt just believe what their underlings tell them.

Remembering that one of the students in the clusters was a special ed student who was never allowed to forget it. The things the district does that you described (consistent with exoerience) also alienate families from ordinary interactions that create connections. The kids are kept at arms' length, all the time, it is a kind of ostracization that other kids pick up on and everyone feels, and employees pile on if families react negatively as is inevitable.

Please do something.


7 people like this
Posted by It's the TRUST Stupid
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 9, 2015 at 10:29 am

I think, per the original post, it would really make a difference if someone pursued, hard, the failure of the district to follow records laws. This is where things really go wrong, and misbahavior can go on to hurt a disabled child for life. In a district with so many depressed students, it is downright frightening, but they have no idea until it's too late. It's not just the letters and emails that are "error"- ridden.


4 people like this
Posted by Its the TRUST Stupid
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 9, 2015 at 12:25 pm

@Secrecry,
One more thing - for us, the problems you describe had the effect of making our own student feel it was not possibke to open up to teachers or staff over anything really personal, that they would use any vulnerability against at some future date, and in fact they did, in degrading ways. We eventually felt unsafe even participating, though no one could say anything lest the persecution get worse.

The effect of what you describe in insurance has been well studied. Insurance companies end up cheating many people but ultimately don't save money overall, because while there are fewer cases, the ones that do end up being pursued end up extremely costly because by then the misbehavior is so bad. It's no accident that an insurance comoany bad faith case was the one insurers pursued to the supreme court to try to overturn and ultimately curb punitive damages. But for our district, it means a mother of a lawsuit when some parent finally decides to sue on principle. Lawyers just love this stuff.

The trouble is that school districts are not insurance companies and they are not only breaking the law, they are hurting innocent children and failing to educate them properly. They are stressing some families deliberately and persistently even while we collectively wrestle with the horrible consequences of too much stress. Please do not just post to town square. Like Jim Crow laws, there is a principle here that due process is being thwarted using other means intended to seem benign. When moneyed school districts act like big bullies because they can, children and parents need someone on their side not only for individual justice, but to fix the system. Please do something.


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

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