Leadership exodus will reshape school district, again

As summer begins, reorganization of staffing is underway

With new principals starting at three of the district's five secondary schools and new top-level district administrators stepping into an organizational structure that's in transition, the Palo Alto school district is undergoing a behind-the-scenes transformation like none other.

Only one regularly scheduled school board meeting next Tuesday and a board retreat on Wednesday remain for the public to learn the details and provide input on how district staff will be organized before the two-month summer break begins.

Superintendent Max McGee — whose performance the school board has recently been evaluating in the wake of controversy over the district's handling of sexual assault reports, including during a closed-session meeting on June 15 — told the Weekly he views the turnover as an "opportunity" to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

McGee is in the midst of restructuring the district organizational chart to take advantage of vacancies left by two mid-year resignations and five departures of senior staff in the past year, in part by consolidating key district-level positions and creating new ones. He declined to provide the proposed organizational chart to the Weekly prior to deadline.

Despite the opportunity for change and fresh perspectives, McGee said he's concerned about the impact of turnover on the district's capacity to make progress on initiatives highly valued by the district and community, from improving the district's handling of sexual violence to implementing a new social-emotional learning curriculum districtwide.

"We're going to redouble our emphasis on being more effective operationally and ensuring compliance," he told the Weekly. "The turnover really represents an opportunity to ... make some of the best better."

Board President Terry Godfrey declined an interview request, saying she didn't think she would be "helpful." She did not respond to a follow-up request.

School board member Todd Collins said he worries about whether recent staff turnover will harm the organization's ability to drive long-term, needed change. The district has struggled, he said, to translate high-level priorities identified by the board and community into concrete action for students.

"Getting that senior and middle organization straight is the key to that struggle," he said in an interview. "That's what's at stake here."

Board Vice President Ken Dauber, however, warned against reading too much into the district's staffing shuffle, which he sees as natural in any organization. He doesn't believe the turnover is reflective of any issues with management or working conditions.

"Overreacting to turnover can distort our thinking about how best to use the resources that we have because much of this is simply natural as people progress through their careers and experience life changes," he said in an interview with the Weekly.

The district office staffing in 2017-18 will look different from the current year in several ways.

An assistant superintendent for strategic initiatives and operations, a new position created by McGee, will assume responsibilities held by former Associate Superintendent Markus Autrey, who suddenly left the district in January, and Chief Student Services Officer Holly Wade, whose last day in the district is June 16. Their positions will be rolled into the new one, according to McGee. The district planned to start interviewing candidates for assistant superintendent this week.

District equity coordinator, a key position created by McGee just last year at the recommendation of the district's Minority Achievement and Talent Development committee, is being eliminated. Equity Coordinator Martha Castellon, who was hired in 2016, is leaving the district at the end of the month. McGee is creating a new coordinator of academic supports position to oversee the implementation and evaluation of a districtwide plan Castellon developed this year to improve achievement for minority and low-income students.

Alma Ellis and Stephanie Sheridan, two interim special education co-directors appointed in the wake of Director of Special Education Chiara Perry's sudden resignation in February, will soon be named permanent leaders of the department, McGee told the Weekly. They will report to the new assistant superintendent, who McGee hopes will have a background in special education to support that department in its efforts to implement long-stalled reform. A recent review of the district's special-education services and culture by an outside consultant identified communication, trust with families and use of data as areas in need of improvement for the district. The review, which some special-education parents criticized as lacking itself, has hung in the balance since Perry's departure earlier this year.

McGee has also hired a new assistant superintendent for human resources to replace Scott Bowers, who is retiring after 12 years on the job and 24 years in the district. McGee also plans to announce on Tuesday a replacement for Brenda Carrillo, who is leaving her post as student services director this month.

McGee said the loss of institutional knowledge at the district office is not inconsequential, but he pointed to a "core" of remaining employees who maintain that, including Chief Budget Officer Cathy Mak, Bond Program Manager Bob Golton and Chief Academic Officer of Secondary Education Sharon Ofek.

Since McGee's arrival in 2014, several new district positions have been added. In 2015, McGee hired Jeong Choe, a chemistry teacher from his former Illinois school, to oversee his new Advanced Authentic Research program. The district last week hired an interim Title IX compliance officer, John DiPaolo, with a plan to make that a full-time position to report directly to the superintendent. Previously, Autrey and then Wade had doubled as the district's Title IX officer.

The district is also considering hiring a full-time Title IX investigator, and McGee recently proposed making a relatively new part-time position, legal requests specialist, full time to support Title IX compliance.

At the school sites, three of Palo Alto Unified's five secondary schools — Terman and Jordan middle schools and Gunn High School — as well as Ohlone Elementary and the district's early education campus, Greendell School, will have new principals in the fall. In the last three years alone, Jordan has seen as many principals: Tom Jacoubowsky led the school on an interim basis in 2015-16 after Greg Barnes left for a district-level job in the Milpitas Unified School District. Jacoubowsky's permanent replacement, Katie Kinnaman, announced in April she will be relocating to Texas at the end of the school year.

Since McGee was hired in 2014, the 12 elementary schools have also seen significant shuffling of leadership. Half of the principals in place in the fall of 2014 are now in different positions, most as the principals of other elementary campuses.

Collins said he's confident the school district, as a large, "mature" organization filled with experienced people, can weather the turnover. What will be most important, he said, is finding the right people to fill any vacant or new positions.

"Those are the decisions we'll live with for a long time," he said.

Related content:

New principals named for Jordan, Terman

Gunn High School principal resigns


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Editor's note: This story incorrectly stated that Palo Verde Elementary School will have a new principal in the 2017-18 school year. Ohlone Elementary School and Greendell Schools will have new principals in the fall. An accompanying graphic documenting leadership changes since 2014 also did not note that Kathleen Meagher was the district's director of elementary education until the end of the 2013-14 school year; Barbara Harris was named to the post shortly after in June 2014.

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20 people like this
Posted by Wish we had a clean slate
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 16, 2017 at 9:04 am

I do not see keeping Golton and Mak as a good thing. The best thing McGee has done is oversee the turnover of C- and D- players who are hard to fire be ause they are nice on a superficial level or to colleagues, but further the negative culture where families are concerned.

I am very concerned about Stephanie Sheridan in the Special Ed leadership role. She is the epitome of the old culture - seems nice and sympathetic, then acts like she is part of a nasty bad faith law firm. Parents have been complaining about how it feels like everything is overly legalistic and scheming behind their backs rather than working honestly with them. [Portion removed.] Reform requires someone who is honest to a fault, able to advocate for all families not just the most likable ones, willing to be straight and not manipulative or scheming behind the scenes which we have had too much of. Sheridan will continue the culture of Wade/Carrillo and then some, she was definitely a highly willing player in the old culture. [Portion removed.] What good is turnover if the claims of reform are empty? Has McGee not learned that things will come back to bite him in the end?

What happens when we are promised a culture change, but it does not change because McGee has installed the Old Guard (or their apprentices) who are as much responsible for the old culture as anyone? When the $217 hits the fan the next time, refer back to this post and remember I told you so.

My advice to McGee would be to take advantage of the turnover and really change the culture. You need people who are honest to a fault, driven to work with families, will do the right thing and push the organization to do the right thing even when they are told to do something unethical or wrong from above, people who will all help the organization become a place that is excited about working with families, solving oroblems, and unwilling to be sucked into legalistic scheming, backbiting, or coverups. Think very hard before putting anyone in a leadership role just because they seem nice to colleagues.

12 people like this
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Jun 16, 2017 at 11:25 am

the_punnisher is a registered user.

Your OCR responsibilities could be better. Special Ed requires Special Ed TRAINED teachers which will be harder to find with all the problems the PAUSD has created. Just contacting the Santa Clara County Ombudsman will not be enough to satisfy the OCR. A PLAN and willing to follow it could take care of the Federal government's requirements. No " half measures " will be accepted by both the Federal Government or the citizens of Palo Alto. Good Luck; you will need it....

11 people like this
Posted by More
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 16, 2017 at 12:12 pm

Wish McGee would use this as an opportunity to see beyond the current list of departures and figure who else must go.
Get rid of the dead wood as you bring new people in please!

Golton? Always takes the easy way out. Time after time hands multi million dollar projects to same architect - no other proposals to get us the best with our bond money.

14 people like this
Posted by Not a Golton Fan
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 17, 2017 at 7:36 am

I completely agree with the comments posted. Let's change the culture with this opportunity.

Bob Golton has for the most part short cut students interests (particularly regarding safety) for cutting costs. He can only see short term and not the bigger picture.

He points to the changes that he has adopted...but please Bob...these are changes that you should have adopted 20 years ago. You are still so far behind. Plus you continue to distort your actions and continue to provide double talk regarding PAUSD projects.

7 people like this
Posted by AUDIT
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 17, 2017 at 9:14 am

It's very scary that the "core" of institutional memory are Bolton and Mak who should have been fired for the budget fiasco.

These two are the ones who seem to run the show in a never ending atmosphere of weak district leadership - proof, they are actually named as the core.

Golton amd Mak have much to do with the culture at Churchill. They influence the Board too, clearly keeping up BAD institutional memory, old habits die hard, these two could be at the "core" of the dysfunction.

Get rid of both of them. Or get actual Supervision.

12 people like this
Posted by PaloAlto2
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 17, 2017 at 9:45 am

They should have fired McGee

10 people like this
Posted by Opaque Reorganization
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jun 17, 2017 at 9:54 am

Palo Alto Online's references to problems with the way this reorganization is being handled are very adept.

I too share the horror of Stephanie Sheridan being handed this job without a true competitive posting. Parents were told there would be nation-wide, competitive search. Instead, the job was only posted internally. Only current employees were allowed to apply, and for a very limited time. The District, again, created a job posting knowing who they wanted to promote, an insider, and wrote a job description so only the current favored employee could apply for it. And, just like before, parents hear on a Friday night people will be promoted at a Tuesday night meeting, without enough time to raise concerns.

Unlike principals, no parent public meeting input is taken in promotion or hiring these Co-Directors or new Assistant Superintendent who the article says the Superintendent "hopes" will have a background in special education. Reading the recent Administrator job postings, it is unclear what these Administrators will do, and they read like negative Special Education and legal activities are their major responsibility.

Supporting the promotions next week, the Superintendent will say how great the insiders have done in this 3 months trial of their jobs, always responding in a timely way to him. Maybe so. But this is exactly what he said with Holly Wade, even though parents stood up that night and said she never responded to parents. To the Superintendent and Board, all that is important is an employee looks good to them in power and responds to the people in power, but not to real families or real children.

Also deeply concerning is the secretive, last minute way these internal only promotions and this reorganization is being handled. I have tried to watch meetings and look at Board Agendas for months, and you can't get information. Charts are not posted, or Board Meeting Agendas say they will be provided at the last minute in the meeting. In other words, you won't be able to get them review them in advance, and unless you are not physically at the meeting, you cannot see a copy of what is being voted on.

In the last reorganization, the Board would not even hand out charts in the meeting, they told parents to look on line, which you couldn't do unless you had the District's log in. Materials couldn't be found on line. The Board was remiss.

It is common when a Board item relates to Special Education for there to be handouts not given the public. There are handouts only the Board has.

Minutes of meetings are a joke, sometimes a year behind. Not all meetings are televised. Survey results, such as those about lawyer performance, were only read out. Parents were not given surveys to complete, and results written by senior administrators read out in a meeting only when requested.

So it is opaque, and parents are not supposed to know what lawyers and employees are given power over disabled children until after it is already done, and it is too late to change.

Also concerning is the way this is being done at the last minute, in summer after parents have already left. They may have two meetings (a regular Board meeting and a Retreat), but few people can attend the 8 hour retreats held in summer. Many people are away, school is out.

This is the exact same way Holly Wade and the group of staff who are resigning en mass were hired and promoted. That turned out to be a disaster.

Maybe these people being promoted without real competitive job posting are truly great.

But the Superintendent and Board have not set the employees up for success. They are doing the promoted employees no favors. They are saying these people are so weak they can't handle their new jobs unless jobs are posted with furtive inside only postings. The Board is saying they need to be secretive about these promotions, and grant them at a time of year parents can't express concerns.

In the past, when disaster struck due to the Board's poor personnel decisions, the Board then blamed families for being too emotional and accusing them of perjury for reporting truth that disabled children were being bullied. In reality, the problems showed a Board remiss in it's major responsibilities to their employees, which is not to blame but to prevent the problems and create a culture and implement and enforce rules that prevent crisis. Their job is to make expectations clear to employees, and enforce expectations. Blaming parents and the disabled won't work.

Parents will always be with us.

The Board and Superintendent is saying these people really can't handle their jobs.

13 people like this
Posted by Retired Teacher
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 17, 2017 at 4:33 pm

Yes, yes, this wholesale exit of administrators from the PAUSD presents a wonderful opportunity to reshape the district, and set things on a wonderful upward track! If only we could keep McGee and his minions from hiring more of these ghastly administrators that he seems to like so much, the poor, benighted fellow! Yes, I'm being sarcastic!

Could it be possible, though, that the many leaving administrators are jumping a ship that is sinking rapidly, due to the unprincipled and vicious attacks on so many district personnel by these intemperate parents and ideologues? Could it be that fewer and fewer highly-qualified people will want to work in a district which was once highly regarded nationwide, and is now sure to be labeled with watch-out signs in the national educational job market?

How long before the declining reputation of this district will discourage more than just administrators from coming in, and will result in even more early retirements and teacher resignations?

For the record, I never taught in this district, but both my kids went through the system. It had its problems, but all in all, the education they received was excellent!

It's sad to see what's happened and is still happening!

6 people like this
Posted by Audit
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 18, 2017 at 4:42 am

retired teacher,

Elementary is strong, the high schools and middle schools more challenging. It's the same parents K-12. Takes a village to come up with recurring problems but lackluster administrators don't need to look far for blame when you have "recurring" problems like addressing homework loads. Do they all work together? Seems from the charts that Admins have fairly rigid lines of command so an expert evaluation of the overall structure is probably needed before hiring away. Relying on Golton and Mak or individuals as "core" because of institutional memory doesn't sound good.

6 people like this
Posted by Opaque Reorganization
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jun 18, 2017 at 10:21 am

@Retired Teacher - that's the point, Problems are not teachers fault, overall. The source is poor leadership and that comes from the very top. Problems arose from the Board and Superintendant. There will always be a few poor teachers and a few who struggle to commnicate with parents, but most teachers are good. The top management did not protect teachers and admins, bringing some to speak at Board meetings when they are uncomfortable or not ready to handle questions, or to be aware of nevitable disagrement or controversy. That is the Board and Superintendant 's job.

Now, Teachers do no get input on highering of new Special Education Directors, even though it shapes their daily lives in the classroom. The reorganization and hiring decisions are being made after school year ends after teachers are gone for summer, So they get no input. Yet McGee has been working on this since at least December when he layed off his Associate Superintendant. It had to have been discussed in closed sessions. This is exactly what happened in McGee's last reorganization, which led to hiring and promotions of the staff who are fleeing, or who were told there is no job for them in the new reorganization.

5 people like this
Posted by Correction
a resident of another community
on Jun 18, 2017 at 10:38 am

The editors should correct the error in their chart. Kathleen Meagher was the Director of Elementary Education in 2014. She left at the same time as Dunkin to go to DC.

7 people like this
Posted by Opaque Reorganization
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jun 18, 2017 at 1:56 pm

Too bad McGee would not provide a chart to Palo Alto Online. That would have reduced confusion and corrections.

Here are some possible corrections -

McGee promoted Holly Wade to Assistant Superintendent over Special Education, Counseling, Attendance, and Compliance and Request requests and related Legal matters. The fact that she had so much control over such a wide range of areas, including the compliance, investigation of her own compliance, records requests was hugely controversial, and source of parent complaints ever since. The problem was one person controlled not only services, but complaints if students were not getting services, staff problems, OCR and State of California CDE complaints, and documents parents needed to raise concerns.

McGee promoted Chiara Perry to Director of Special Education, the job Holly Wade formerly held. Brenda Carillo was promoted to head counseling.

Both Chiara Perry and Brenda Carillo reported to Holly Wade.

Many job postings as a result of the previous reorganization were only open to current employees and current contractors, including jobs that would not normally be so limited such as secretary and very sensitive jobs such as behaviorists. The lack of competitive job postings and the fact these job postings, including Holly Wade's, were obviously written so that only a current employee or contractor could get the job, was also a major concern at the time. It indicated the District's Superintendent and Board members never intended to do a competitive search but pre-chose who would get the jobs long before. It should not be surprising this re-organization is falling apart.

According to the March OCR letter, Wade became responsible for Title IX matters sometime later. That is a confusing point, so you might want to verify it.

6 people like this
Posted by Wish we had a clean slate
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 26, 2017 at 1:27 am

@Retired teacher,
"due to the unprincipled and vicious attacks on so many district personnel by these intemperate parents and ideologues"

I am actually familiar with the district, and find the parents here to be mainly some of the most intelligent, supportive that you will find anywhere. I think the vicious, undue attacks have mainly been against them. There is almost no mechanism to hold bas, dishonest, ineffective, or vindictive people to account in the district office, and because they make such outsized salaries, they have tended to defend their turf by attacking oarents and children who have been wronged rather than working with families.

That is just a really strange accusation, to call parents upset with serious concerns about problematic personnel and the culture "ideologues". I personnally have never in my life seen such a rotten organizational culture, with such bad apples who were good at covering their misdeeds, and I've seen a lot. I would not be surprised if one day we find out there was sone much deeper malfeasance. It's meaningless to say that just because you had no problems, that others must be fo blame for what they experienced. I personally think the criticism has been mild considering what I and others have witnessed: leadership that does things like systematically lie, libel parents to manipulate teachers against them in a way that hurts family connection to the school and the childrens education, refuse to follow the law or district rules such as following records requests and antidiscrimination protections, plots against parents to thwart legal protections of their children and due process, systematically interfere with the education and school connectedness of already stressed children and deliberately take steps to induce stress in parents (including to sue families of special ed students) in order to encourage people to leave, that's just a small sampling. I would never, ever have believed this could happen in a school district if I had not witnessed it myself. We really need deep cleaning and a new approach, and this is not it. You can blame parents all you want, but in my experience, these are about as easy as you'll get anywhere. That's part of the problem.

Near as I can tell, you are the intemperate one, leveling harsh attacks against parents who are trying to speak truth about seriously problematic leadership and fix things, even though you acknowledge no firsthand knowledge.

4 people like this
Posted by Same old political games
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 27, 2017 at 6:59 pm

Forget the opportunity for a different direction or a new start. What we are seeing is a dance of the lemons. Some administrators are allowed to retire with big benefits, some are escaping to nearby districts, and now we have Glenn McGee demonstrating the mediocrity of his leadership by essentially reassigning Kathie Laurence, an assistant principal previously not thought of as a true principal, to fill the opening at Gunn. This is not excellence.

1 person likes this
Posted by Who Heads Special Ed?
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 1, 2017 at 6:55 pm

From article above:
" Alma Ellis and Stephanie Sheridan, two interim special education co-directors appointed in the wake of Director of Special Education Chiara Perry's sudden resignation in February, will soon be named permanent leaders of the department, McGee told the Weekly."

So what happened? Were they appointed permanent? Do not see it on the Consent documents for Board of Education approval. Although District's Press Release said District would conduct nation-wide search, District only opened the jobs to internal applicants.
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