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.