Viewpoint - March 20, 2013
Editorial: Superintendent's actions roil school district
For a superintendent who is reputed to be fond of applying the latest business techniques to improve the performance of local school districts, Maurice Ghysels seems to have missed the seminar on human relations.
At least that is what it sounded like last week when the Menlo Park City School District's director of special education angrily addressed district trustees, who were about to rule on Mr. Ghysels' decision to fire her, with no warning, from the position she has held for eight and a half years. Livid upon being dismissed, Olivia Mandilk let loose with a barrage of charges about the superintendent, including a claim that six of his 12 top staff members have left or are leaving their positions since he took over from Ken Ranella less than two years ago. (At least one of the people who is away from her job is apparently on sick leave, and says she has no quarrel with the superintendent, and the others have not been willing or available to comment.)
But this case and Mr. Ghysels' dismissal of other employees, some of whom had been with the district many years, calls into question whether his management style is right for the high-performing school district, whose annual standardized test scores have often placed its four schools among the best in the state. Recent developments and a flood of comments on the Almanac's Town Square website provide a snapshot of a leader who Ms. Mandilk claims uses bullying or other forms of mistreatment when managing his top employees. Mr. Ghysels refused to comment on the bullying charge, but did say, "It's hard to be a leader and make difficult personnel decisions. I know the people have not always been happy with those decisions."
And after the school board upheld the decision to fire the special education director in a closed session last week, president Terry Thygesen said, "I am fully confident that Dr. Ghysels is leading our district effectively."
Ms. Mandilk told the trustees that she had no indication that a change was in store for her when she got the news from Mr. Ghysels. And, she said that as far as she could tell, no staff members or parents were asked to provide input regarding changes in the department, which she says deals with more than 1,000 of the district's approximately 3,000 students. "I have not been informed regarding what direction the superintendent intends to take and what the implications are for the students," she said.
Although the human relations practices of business and professional organizations can vary, it is common for an under-performing employee to be told that he or she needs to improve in particular categories before being let go, a protocol not followed in Ms. Mandilk's case. Employee reviews are a good way to get a message across so employers can set deadlines for employees to meet various goals. In some cases lower-ranking at-will employees are let go without cause, but top school executives should not be dismissed in a way that causes widespread concern in the department.
Trustees also should act quickly to make sure the superintendent is not bullying his subordinates, as Ms. Mandilk charged. If it is true, it is a practice that destroys morale among employees and could lead to the exodus of good people. School officials across the country are concerned with bullying among students, but it is a terrible situation if employees are feeling bullied by their boss. Just the number of people who have unexpectedly left their positions or left the district altogether should be of great concern to the trustees.
After completing a massive facilities rebuilding project last year that was largely planned and executed under Mr. Ranella, the district is poised to continue a long, successful run of providing an excellent elementary and middle school education for Menlo Park and Atherton students. A stable and caring superintendent and top-quality principals have been the keystones of the district's success. We hope the embarrassing and very public dismissal of Olivia Mandilk and the firing of other top school officials is not the beginning of a housecleaning that could set back the district's performance for years. Mr. Ghysels may fancy himself an innovator, but the latest example of his management style deserves a grade of "F" in our book.
Posted by We Want A+ Leadership,
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 23, 2013 at 8:49 am
Staff and community members began questioning Dr. Ghysels' character and leadership style over a year ago. The "Music Man" Ghysels continues to strum his guitar and sing. His next musical performance should be "There's Trouble---Right Here in River City!" at the Foundation Auction in April. We'd all sing along to that one.
Below are a few posts from the Almanac, back to December 2011.
Posted by Carl, a resident of the Atherton: Lloyden Park neighborhood, on Dec 29, 2011 at 7:19 am
Maurice Ghysels, the ultimate toxic leader. That's a choice that will come back to haunt.
There have recently been several posts on other threads regarding the management style of Maurice Ghysels. As noted by Carl, a "toxic leader" is defined as a person who demonstrates, "a condescending/glib attitude, poor self-control, physical and/or psychological bullying, discriminatory attitudes, aggressive narcissism, glibness/superficial charm, a grandiose sense of self-worth, a lack of empathy, and a failure to accept responsibility for own actions."
Toxic leaders first charm but then manipulate, mistreat, undermine and ultimately leave their followers worse off than they found them. The School Board needs to take a close, honest look at the superintendent by seeking input from parents and staff.
Posted by Very Afraid, a resident of the Menlo Park: Felton Gables neighborhood, on Feb 13, 2012 at 5:23 pm
Please ask around many are afraid to come forward, we encourage you to do so. Watching good long term educators and others treated with such disrespect is unbelievable. We all are watching in fear that we are next to suffer his rath if we even think about disagreeing with his Leadership.
Posted by Elaine, a resident of another community, on Feb 17, 2012 at 10:38 am
It's deja-vu of his time in Mountain View. Only now it would appear he has learned to keep himself out of the press. I hate to say it, but we told you so...
Posted by Seth, a resident of the Portola Valley: other neighborhood, on Feb 20, 2012 at 8:17 pm
When I hear Maurice Ghysles' name come up I just cringe with amazement of how such a [word removed -- please avoid name-calling] can fool so many people. He does put on a good show.
Posted by Parent, a resident of the Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park neighborhood, on Feb 23, 2012 at 4:36 pm
After interacting with this superintendent on several occasions I have walked away with a sense that he will say whatever it is you want to hear, only with his spin attached to it. He loves to spout ideas about leadership and corporate management, but I sense it's only a regurgitation of the latest fad. Not impressed, particularly given the money being spent on him. I also am a bit perplexed how he was hired after leaving Mountain View under such a cloud. I question his judgement overall.
Posted by Liz, a resident of another community, on Mar 9, 2012 at 4:48 pm
Hey Menlo Park:
What was your superintendent doing attending our Mountain View School District fund raiser last Saturday night? Really weird if you ask me. Talk about a lack of class. He waltzes in like he still in charge. Boy did he get the gossip going again like old times. And here I thought we were rid of him. Toxic leader for sure.
Posted by Appalled, a resident of the Menlo Park: other neighborhood, on Mar 26, 2012 at 10:40 pm
I had heard great things about Mr. Ghysles when he first arrived. Since then, I have lost much respect for the man who leads this district. What is worse is that I am losing confidence in the School Board, who I understand chose him without any input from our community or the staff.
What has happened to our great district leadership?
The past couple years has seen a loss in good administrators; I just hope better decisions are to come before we lose the talented teachers Menlo Park is known for.
Posted by input, a resident of the Menlo Park: Felton Gables neighborhood, on Mar 27, 2012 at 10:24 am
The school board had input, but they ignored it. They uniformly insisted that all the negative info about Ghysels was just unfounded gossip and that all his references checked out brilliantly. How much redder did those flags need to be?
Posted by Smart Gal, a resident of the Woodside: Emerald Hills neighborhood, on Apr 1, 2012 at 2:33 pm
We have friends who work for the District and the stories we hear are very sad. It sounds to my husband and I like this guy is causing so much disruption in the administration that he is tearing the district apart. So sad the board should get this guy in line ASAP before he ruins a great organization.