With the strongest board in decades and a new management team, the Palo Alto school district is in the process of a desperately needed turnaround.
After more than five years of mismanagement, legal non-compliance, lack of transparency and a multitude of self-inflicted controversies, the district is finally equipped to move beyond the chaos and blunders of the past. It took two election cycles and the replacement of two superintendents and two law firms, but in the end democracy is working.
Frustrated voters began this process four years ago when they elected Ken Dauber and Terry Godfrey to the school board. These two, while constituting a minority, brought important fresh and independent critical thinking to a board that had doubled-down on strategies developed in frequent and improper closed sessions to use all means necessary to fight and resist the federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR) investigations into the district. It was an ill-fated series of actions that broke trust with parents and students and sent the district down a rat hole of legal expenses and obfuscation.
Dauber and Godfrey were elected just three months into the tenure of former Superintendent Max McGee, who had been hired by the old board to replace Kevin Skelly, the superintendent who had to leave after failing to inform the board or the public about OCR's blistering criticisms of the district's handling of the bullying of a disabled middle school student.
McGee, who was touted for his leadership of an innovative math and technology-oriented public boarding school in Illinois, started his job with promises of working with, not against, the Office for Civil Rights' investigations of the school district. But it soon became clear that he was not equipped to deal with the administrative challenges of the job and the magnitude of the problems. Among other things, he failed to inform OCR about new sexual harassment and assault cases, misled the board and public about his secret support for a new high school and negotiated an unprecedented three-year union contract based on financial data that was found a month later to have been wrongly calculated. He surrounded himself with weak senior administrators, which led to unprecedented turnover and confusion about organizational roles and responsibilities.
In the 2016 election, voters finished what they had started in 2014 by electing two strong newcomers, Todd Collins and Jennifer DiBrienza.
With their election, four of the five trustees were new since McGee's hiring, and they developed a deepening concern over McGee's leadership, the performance of other members of his senior team and the district's law firms, particularly in their handling of sexual assault, harassment and discrimination claims, and compliance with laws and policies in general.
The board took the unprecedented step of ordering independent investigations into how the district and Paly staff handled a 2016 sexual assault and a Title IX report for an incident in 2015, and these reports, which showed major failures in process, and other revelations gave the board what it needed to act. Chief Student Services Officer Holly Wade, the No. 2 under McGee who was responsible for Title IX investigations and special ed, left the district in June 2017, as did Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Scott Bowers. Paly Principal Kim Diorio and Gunn Principal Kathie Laurence were both disciplined for their handling of the Paly assaults. McGee announced he would be "retiring" in June 2018 after a final year with the district, but after it was revealed last September that his staff forgot to cancel the third year of pay increases contained in the union contract by the March deadline, costing the district millions of dollars, the board announced he would be gone by the end of the month. Chief Business Officer Cathy Mak announced that she too would be leaving, effective later this month.
Bowers' replacement, Karen Hendricks, who had only been in her job a few months, was named interim superintendent and immediately began bringing order and discipline to the district office. And new Superintendent Don Austin, who started just three months ago, is focused on assessing the needs and problems of the organization, establishing better and more open communications both within the district and with the public. He immediately recruited a well-regarded new chief business and financial officer, Jim Novak, to replace Mak. He also appointed Hendricks as deputy superintendent.
Austin's skills and leadership style are markedly different than McGee's and appear well-matched to the district's immediate priority of getting itself functioning competently so that the educational and social-emotional needs of all students can once again become the focus. Unlike McGee, whose big ideas about education and innovation sucked up most of his time and energy at the expense of managing a $230 million enterprise, Austin appears eager and capable of tackling the hard work of building and running an effective and well-run organization.
With that backdrop, we believe Ken Dauber and Shounak Dharap are the best candidates for the two board positions on the ballot. Dauber is the sole incumbent running since Terry Godfrey decided not to seek a second four-year term. In addition to Dharap, the other four first-time candidates are Stacey Ashlund, Chris Boyd, Kathy Jordan and Alex Scharf.
Four years ago, we supported Dauber's election because he shared our concerns about the district's poor handling of the OCR investigations, student stress and well-being, the lack of progress in addressing the achievement gap, the need for more data-driven decision-making, problems with the Gunn High School counseling program, the lack of an effective homework policy and the failings of the special-education program.
During his tenure, he has led the board in making progress on all these goals and as board president has focused on greater transparency and improving the quality of board meetings. Even his early critics, who didn't like his public criticism of the board's actions prior to running in 2014, have largely come around to realizing he has been a force for positive change and a strong leader through a difficult period. His even temperament and clear communications, along with that of his colleagues, has eliminated most of the drama that characterized board behavior in past years. He was a leader in bringing about the personnel changes outlined above.
Shounak Dharap is a litigation attorney and 2008 Gunn High School graduate who believes the community's expectation of "academic exceptionalism" has created a culture the puts enormous and often unhealthy pressure on students to achieve excellence in everything they do, from grades to test results to athletic success. He wants to see the district give equal value and attention to students and parents who are looking for a more balanced and less competitive approach to high school and a focus on helping teens find and explore their passions.
Dharap's training as an attorney and his thoughtful analysis of issues will be a valuable addition to a board that has struggled with legal compliance and process issues, especially given the impending hiring of a general counsel. This is also a unique opportunity to diversify the board by adding a younger resident of Indian heritage who graduated from the district just a decade ago.
Of the remaining candidates, Stacey Ashlund's long involvement in the schools, the PTA and on the city Parks and Recreation Commission make her the best alternative. Her extensive work as an advocate for special needs children was shaped by her own child's experiences and led her take on numerous special ed leadership roles over many years. Our reluctance to support her stems from her ambivalence about the need for the management changes undertaken by the current board and whether she will bring the needed independence and temperament to the office. With three current board members having children with special needs we would prefer a candidate, like Dharap, who brings greater diversity to the board.
Kathy Jordan is a parent, former professional tennis player and Stanford University graduate who became publicly involved in school issues last spring, when she waged a campaign to have Diorio, and potentially others, fired over their handling of sexual assault and harassment allegations dating back several years.
As much as we share some of Jordan's complaints about the past failures of Paly and district administrators who handled these matters, her tactics do not suggest she has the temperament to work effectively with other board members or the new district administration. She has sent hundreds of repetitive and demanding emails to the board, administrators and the media and made unreasonably broad requests for years of emails between district employees.
Her criticisms of the current board are also misplaced. The board took all the right steps to investigate and remove or discipline the staff members who made mistakes, as described above.
Alex Scharf is a 2015 Paly graduate and current Foothill College student who has focused on his experience as a student and his frustration at how the district goes about serving kids with special needs.
Chris Boyd says he operates an after-school program called Insted, but in researching his background the Weekly found that his organization has served only a handful of kids and is not registered to do business in California, and he has falsely claimed it is a 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization.
We are greatly encouraged the actions the current board has taken in the last two years to address the district's many problems and to put in place a new and stronger management team. In an engaged community like Palo Alto there will continue to be unexpected issues and controversies, such as the middle school name changes, the sex ed curriculum update, bell schedules and weighted GPA.
But we are in a far better place than at any point in the last decade and we are confident that electing Ken Dauber and Shounak Dharap is the best way to continue that progress.
• Read the Weekly's past editorials on school-related issues since the 2016 election and our 2016 endorsement editorial.
Find more coverage on Palo Alto races and measures, endorsements and voter-education events here.