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About this blog: So much is right — and wrong — about what is happening in Palo Alto. In this blog I want to discuss all that with you. I know many residents care about this town, and I want to explore our collective interests to help ...  (More)

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School Superintendent Hires Need to be Thoroughly Vetted

Uploaded: May 11, 2018

The Palo Alto School District is now undergoing its third hire for a superintendent in a little more than a decade. Maybe it’s time for school board members to think about improving their hiring process because two of the previous superintendents, Kevin Skelly and Max McGee, didn’t work out.
PAUSD Board President Ken Dauber told me that the board had spent five to six hours interviewing their successful candidate, Don Austin, currently the superintendent of Palo Verdes Peninsula Unified School District. Yes, the board checked on all his references, Dauber said, as well as “talked to people on the off list,” and after discussing pros and cons, settled on Austin.
But no board member made a trip to Palo Verdes to informally talk with some of the teachers and parents that Austin had worked with. Dauber said the idea of going down for a visit was discussed at the beginning of the year, but then discarded as not being necessary.
I think any potential superintendent needs full vetting, and that vetting should be significantly more than a one-on-five interview in Palo Alto. Some blogs on this website indicate that Austin had some problems with his district, which need to be examined.
The appointment is subject to final board approval at the Tuesday, May 22 meeting, so there still is time for more probing.
I’ve hired a number of employees in my professional life, and while I dutifully called the references listed, the reality is that most of us only put down our friends and supporters as references, not our critics. True to form, the references calls inevitably resulted in high regard for the candidate (“Great guy! Well liked. Hard worker.”)
Second, a school superintendent’s job, particularly in Palo Alto, is a tricky one – he or she has to listen to lots of constituencies -- teachers, students, administrators and especially Palo Alto parents, whose school standards are very high. A face-to-face interview with this candidate cannot successfully determine how well he worked with constituencies in his Palos Verdes position.
Third, what about personal characteristics – how does the candidate relate to children? Is he difficult to get along with? Is the candidate focused too much on protecting teachers – or only doing what the board wants?
The other concern I have, not only with the Palo Alto School District but also with other top public official hires (city managers, community college chancellors, etc.), is that their new salaries are usually a bit higher than what their predecessors were getting. But often the predecessors, especially the long-time ones, were awarded yearly increases that were based not only on across-the-board raises, but also on merit. We’ve had several public officials in town that achieved higher salaries because they did so well.
So why should a new superintendent (or city manager) get the benefit of a predecessor’s previous positive performance? For example, shouldn’t the salary instead be based on say, the cost-of-living increases since the previous superintendent was hired or some other established formula?
Just asking.
Local Journalism.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Abitarian, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 13, 2018 at 4:02 pm

Diana is right; a five- or six-hour group interview is hardly sufficient for choosing a school superintendent, especially given the unfortunate history of the two most recent incumbents.

At many of our local firms, even candidates for junior-level positions face a far more intensive vetting process.

Prior to Max McGee's hiring, the school board was criticized for funding a trip to his Chicago area district. Many described the school tour as a "boondoggle". Perhaps the current minimalist approach is an over-reaction to that event.

In my experience, there is nothing like seeing a candidate in action. Imagine if there were some public meeting in Palos Verdes involving Mr. Austin, school board members, teachers, parents, and students. Observing Mr. Austin's interaction with these constituencies and gathering feedback from participants and attendees would be most instructive.

That's just one thought, but my point is we should expect the hiring team to be both creative and thorough in getting to know a finalist for such an important position.

Posted by PAUSD Bored, a resident of Palo Alto High School,
on May 13, 2018 at 5:46 pm

Palos Verdes is sooo far to go, and it's sooo much work to talk to people. But considering what we're paying him he must be very good, so what's the problem?

Posted by Cassandra, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 16, 2018 at 5:34 pm

Good thoughts. I think unfortunately a visit isn't necessarily the answer. For McGee, a whole bevy of the big reasons our district had problems went along to ensure they cozied up to the new guy before he got here in order to ensure he saw things their way if any parents complained. Hence the way the Title IX went, including that a very good school administrator got caught in the mess because she relied on her superiors instead of her conscience and her own understanding of the law. The CYA crowd in the district office advised her based on their own interests (and backsides) and used district legal like their own personal fixers.

From where I am sitting, McGee was plopped into a nest of snakes. I don't think they were all equally snakey, I think there were two really bad ones in cahoots leading to unholy behavior from others who bought into what they were told and never saw themselves as bad people. He was either going to survive by becoming one of them or leave or both. We really needed someone to come in and clean out the barn at the district office, and reform the culture. The trouble is that no one on the board was really even looking for that, and McGee had such a nice resume and was such a nice guy. He was a sitting duck. I am not defending the way he so badly handled things like records requests and complaints, but if people wanted a reformer, they should have gotten a reformer AND put in place mechanisms to make solving problems less risky for families.

On the whole, we're putting too much on the superintendent to solve problems they couldn't possibly solve within the district culture, coming alone from outside (and, as you point out, paying that person too much).

We desperately need an ombudsperson position, someone who doesn't answer to the district, and who doesn't live anywhere near 25 Churchill. It should be someone whose job it is to represent the interests of the families, who answers only to the families and perhaps to someone in City government like the mayor (as some cities do). Families need to be able to go to someone who will listen to their concerns, and who has the interest and power to do something about it. Teachers have their unions. Administrators in the district office have their power and their CYA culture. Families need a place to go that creates checks and balances. This might make life hard for a poorly performing administrator, but it will make things better for an administrator interested in solving problems because it won't all be just on him/her. An administrator interested in reforming things would get help from the inside. Things won't ever build to the breaking point again.

Everything we know about well-functioning organizations points to balancing powers, and everything about school districts points to inevitable problems resulting from insularity and lack of checks and balances. Innovators are people with a vested interest in seeing a problem solved. No one who doesn't experience problems like some families experience in school is going to work to solve them like the people who experience them. We need to have processes in place that protect and support people to find solutions for everyone. This is ultimately how our district will start functioning well again, and how administrators can focus on the education instead of plugging more holes in the dam.

The community can get an ombudsperson through an amendment to the school district section of the city charter. Such an amendment could also include processes for re-evaluating and re-setting administrator pay (as happens at the state level - through a process created by initiative - and is why the governor of the 5th largest economy in the world is paid considerably less than the superintendent of a school district in a small city and even most of the administrators who do things most people couldn't even describe). Diana, you could help by just looking into and reporting on school districts around the country that have found better ways to create checks and balances. We are not alone in these problems.

Just having a process like initiative or referendum at the school district level would help a lot. These things are not easy, so it wouldn't be like management by ballot, but it would provide a way for the community to have a lever in issues they really care about, and thus would keep the administration more honest.

We have lots of laws on the books, and "binding" board policies, but there aren't in reality any ways to enforce them. The last superintendent seemed to have a propensity for secrecy and failing to honor records laws. If you are interested, I'll show you a persistent pattern of the district blatantly and overtly defying records laws. Do you know who enforces those laws if districts don't follow them? I do. But most districts would never dream of flaunting the laws the way PAUSD superintendents have at the behest of CYA employees, so in practice, the enforcement doesn't exist. The entity the DOE says enforces records laws doesn't even know they are charged to do it. So, every request that went unanswered was a problem that went unaddressed and unsolved. How many, how many years? We'll probably find out some of it when the dam breaks again. It would be far better if each family could ensure the law was followed and their children's rights honored and the district functioned at its best for everyone, at all times (not after things get to the breaking point for lack of it). We can get that through an empowered ombudsperson who answers specifically to the community and the families in the district.

Posted by Annette, a resident of College Terrace,
on May 17, 2018 at 11:46 am

Annette is a registered user.

Good blog; great advice; hope it is heeded.

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