News

In 2016, Palo Alto school district's unexpected challenges

Year marked by issues raised by community members

In many ways, 2016 was a year of surprises for the Palo Alto school district.

Palo Alto Unified was unexpectedly hit with a multi-million dollar shortfall this summer, the result of overestimated property tax revenue.

In the school-board election, incumbent advantage fell to the might of two newcomers -- one who dominated precincts throughout the city.

Surprise issues that weren't on the district's agenda, from a push to rename schools bearing the monikers of eugenicists and a deep dive into class sizes at Palo Alto's secondary schools to an emotionally charged debate over weighted grade-point averages, bubbled up from the community throughout the year, becoming some of the most paid-attention-to issues of the year. Most of these were driven by an individual passionate parent, student or group that rallied for change.

It was also a year of action for the school district. The school board approved multi-year teacher contracts for the first time in years, providing significant 12 percent raises spread out over three years. The contract, repeatedly called "historic" by school leadership, came in the midst of increased debate over how the district must make itself a more attractive place for teachers living and working in an increasingly expensive region.

At the elementary level, Palo Alto's 12 elementary schools shifted to a full kindergarten day in October, a controversial move that was hailed by some as the most significant early-education investment the district has made in years but criticized by others as a rushed, possibly harmful decision for the district's youngest students. The board also approved two new elementary mathematics curricula to pilot in the 2017-18 school year, a decision that revealed tensions in Palo Alto between teachers' wishes and board decisions.

The board also gave the green light to capital improvements for many elementary campuses, including a major revamp of Addison Elementary School, paid for by an anonymous donor.

Students' mental health remained a present concern, with new wellness centers opening at the district's high schools and a 19-member committee of teachers, administrators, parents and students working to bring a uniform social-emotional learning curriculum to the entire district.

Personnel shifts also abounded. Jordan Middle School, JLS Middle School, Palo Verde Elementary and Juana Briones Elementary each got new principals this year, bringing more permanent leadership to positions that had been in flux in recent years. At the district level, Palo Alto got a new chief academic officer for secondary education in former JLS Principal Sharon Ofek, replaced an oft-criticized law firm with a new one and hired a part-time person dedicated to bringing the district into compliance with its Public Records Act requests.

One of the most significant stories of the year came just weeks before 2016 ended: The long-anticipated conclusion to a federal investigation into how the school district has responded to cases of sexual harassment at its two high schools. The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which has been investigating Palo Alto Unified since 2013, submitted to the district earlier this month a draft agreement that outlines specific steps the district will be obligated to take to address its failure to comply with federal law.

The agency's investigation was expanded beyond the initial complaints that launched it to include several cases of sexual misconduct reported more recently, including Paly teacher Kevin Sharp, who was reported to have had an inappropriate consensual sexual relationship with a student; Paly teacher Ronnie Farrell, who was arrested this summer for allegedly touching a student inappropriately in a classroom at the end of the last school year, and former Ohlone Elementary School teacher Michael Airo, who was arrested in January for alleged child sex abuse that occurred more than a decade ago.

How the district responds to -- and complies with -- the Office for Civil Rights' agreement and eventual findings in the new year will be telling for a district that historically has chosen to battle rather than work with the federal agency.

Many pressing issues that rose to the surface in 2016 remain on the horizon for 2017. The new school board will be tasked with reforming the special-education program, prompted by a long-awaited Harvard University review of the district's services. The board will vote whether to rename Jordan and Terman middle schools and Cubberley Community Center, potentially taking a stand against the reprehensible parts of their namesakes' legacies. Come April, Superintendent Max McGee will make his recommendation for whether the district should permanently report high school students' weighted GPAs, sure to stoke strong community response once again.

This year's unexpected shortfall will continue to put pressure on the district budget, with hard choices ahead at both the district office and schools for how to make up the revenue gap.

Perhaps most telling in 2017 will be the impact of the new school board. Terry Godfrey and Ken Dauber, elected this month by their peers as president and vice president of the board, now form the board's agenda-setting committee, which meets regularly with the superintendent to determine what will come before the board. Godfrey will also now chair the board's policy-review committee, sure to tackle serious, impactful issues in 2017 related to the Office for Civil Rights' findings.

They are joined at the dais by like-minded Todd Collins, a budget hawk and data wonk; Jennifer DiBrienza, a voice for teachers, equity and innovation; and Melissa Baten Caswell, who is serving a rare third term on the board with an emphasis on institutional knowledge, retaining and recruiting teachers and data-driven decisions.

More Year in Review content:

Takeaways of 2016

This year's headshakers

The 12 stories that Palo Alto Online users engaged with the most

Housing shortage takes center stage at City Hall

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Comments

6 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 30, 2016 at 2:15 pm

Marc Vincenti is a registered user.

Save the 2,008--the 550-strong community alliance founded two years back by a Gunn sophomore and a teacher, and christened for the number of students and faculty at their school--salutes the Weekly for its remarkable, comprehensive, and consistent coverage of local education, sends good wishes to Todd Collins, Jennifer DiBrienza, and Melissa Baten Caswell for their upcoming terms on the board, and invites any and all Palo Altans to join us in creating high schools less filled with stress, more filled with trust, connection and hope. All it takes is the keystrokes of your name at savethe2008.com. (And Happy New Year!)


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