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.