Both Palo Alto and Gunn high schools will lose their principals at the end of the school year, the district announced on Friday.
Paly Principal Adam Paulson, who has led the school since 2018, plans to resign. Principal Kathie Laurence, a longtime district employee who took the helm at Gunn in 2017, is not going far, however. She'll be the district's new director of secondary education services, overseeing all major initiatives at the middle and high schools, including curriculum and instruction, assessment, professional development and equity. The district administrator currently overseeing secondary education services, Sharon Ofek, is being promoted to associate superintendent of educational services, pending the school board's approval next Tuesday.
In a message to Paly staff on Friday morning, Paulson said resigning "was a difficult personal decision for me, but one that I feel is best for myself and my family." He declined to share further information.
"It has been an honor to spend the past six years as principal, assistant principal and dean of students at Paly," he wrote to staff. "The best part of my day is always the rich interactions I have with the students and our exemplary staff."
He did not answer questions about what he will do after Paly and whether he plans to continue working in education.
Paulson, a former teacher and Paly administrator, was appointed principal on an acting and then permanent basis in 2018. He replaced Kim Diorio, who took a sudden medical leave and then resigned following upheaval over the school's improper handling of two cases of student sexual assault in recent years. (Some parents urged the district against appointing Paulson as principal given he was involved in one of the cases.) Both Diorio and Laurence were issued formal disciplinary notices by the district for their handling of a Paly student's report of sexual assault in 2016.
"Over the past two years our leadership team has restored an environment that fosters connection, trust and learning," Paulson wrote in an email to the Weekly. "I am proud of the team that we have in place and I know they will continue to accomplish great things."
Laurence, who has more than 22 years of experience in the district, said Superintendent Don Austin approached her before winter break with the idea that she move to the district position. She said she decided to take the job for the same reason she left Paly for Gunn: to effect change in a new way.
"When I have changed jobs in the district I have done it because I thought I could help in a different way," she said. "When I came to Gunn, I felt like maybe I could be the right person for Gunn. I think this is really a unique opportunity for me to work with all the secondary schools to continue the work on the Promise (the district's plan) and keep us aligned."
As a director, Laurence will be part of the superintendent's cabinet and report to Ofek. Assistant superintendents, by comparison, are part of the smaller executive cabinet, report directly to the superintendent and assign tasks to directors and coordinators.
Austin said Laurence will provide invaluable support as a mentor to the two new high school principals when they're hired. New school leaders could provide an opening for more standardization across the two campuses, a desire that's felt in particular by students, Austin said.
"It will take a little time to determine what should be common and where it makes sense to be different," he said.
Laurence taught social studies at Paly from 1995 to 2010 before she was promoted to assistant principal. At Gunn, she was largely seen as bringing stability to a school in rocky transition. She replaced Denise Herrman, whose years at Gunn were marked by both progress and tumult, including a new bell schedule, conflict with the teachers union and student deaths by suicide.
Laurence said she feels she's leaving Gunn as a more "relaxed" and "open" school where teachers are exploring new approaches to teaching and learning.
"I leave with a tear in my eye," said Laurence, herself a Gunn graduate.
She will receive an annual salary of $198,131 with the new job, a 0.89% increase over her current pay, according to the district. If approved, her new position will be effective July 1.
Austin said he hopes the leadership shakeup will bring a hierarchy and greater coordination at the district level, while also providing an opportunity for fresh leadership at the high schools.
The current, less traditional structure of education services, with two people separately overseeing the elementary and secondary levels without a single person to manage the whole department, often created confusion, redundancy and disorganization, Austin said.
"We have noticeably lacked a single person tasked with coordinating, facilitating and leading all aspects of educational services. This is a role I had in Huntington Beach and have missed having a single contact to drive and monitor the biggest priorities of the district," he said.
Ofek first came to Palo Alto 20 years ago as a middle school mathematics teacher and has held various administrative roles since then, including assistant principal at Greene Middle School and principal of JLS Middle School. In 2016 she moved to the district office as chief academic officer of secondary education under former Superintendent Max McGee.
In her new role, Ofek will be charged with executing the district's highest level goals from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. This position was last in place in Palo Alto Unified during the 2016-17 school year, according to the district.
If approved by the board, Ofek will start the new position immediately. Her current annual salary is $225,538. Under the new position, she will shift to step 2 of the associate superintendent salary schedule, which is the same amount. The following year, she will earn $232,305, which is the raise she would have received as an assistant superintendent.
Assuming the school board approves the personnel changes, the district will immediately begin its search for new high school principals, as well as a public input-gathering process. The district is planning to meet with students, parents and staff at both high schools and include representatives from those groups, as well as union representatives and district staff, in the interviewing process.
Austin hopes to announce new hires by March.