Don’t be so quick to yell “You’re fired!” — school board needs to think long-term

OPINION

BY DAVE PRICE
Daily Post Editor

I think the Palo Alto school board ought to hold off on firing Superintendent Max McGee.

I realize there is a clamor in the community right now to show him the door after two large mistakes made by the district’s administration — allowing a sexual assault offender to return to Palo Alto High School and missing a deadline to rollback raises for school employees.

But what will firing him now accomplish? He’s already given his notice that he plans to retire at the end of this academic year, nine months from now.

Who will be the interim superintendent if he leaves now?

We asked school board members Ken Dauber and Todd Collins — the two calling for McGee’s dismissal — who they would want as the interim superintendent. Neither had an answer.

And that’s a problem for this district. The bench isn’t that deep. There’s nobody ready to step up. Some of those who might be in line for the job are associated with the mistakes that have got people screaming.

(Too bad former finance chief Bob Golton isn’t 20 years younger. He would have been an ideal superintendent for Palo Alto, a master of the business, management and the academic aspects of running a school district.)

There’s no guarantee that an interim superintendent would do any better than McGee. And firing him now will have some long-term consequences I don’t think the board is considering.

Soon, the board will be looking for a new superintendent.
Who is going to take a job where the last two superintendents were forced out in three years by angry mobs? Who wants to lead a district with a loud minority faction that manufactures a controversy out of almost anything? Who wants to report to a board that seems unable to resolve long standing problems?

A potentially great superintendent will take one look at what’s been happening here and not want anything to do with it. Why would a sane person risk their career by coming here?

Beware of search firms

No doubt the board will hire a head-hunting firm to find a new superintendent. The problem is that these firms have a conflict of interest. They also represent superintendents looking for new jobs.

Imagine a superintendent in another city, who isn’t doing his job very well and is having problems with his board. He hires one of these firms to find him a new job before he gets the ax. The district hiring such a candidate doesn’t learn about the superintendent’s problems because personnel files are confidential and the discussions with the board happen behind closed doors in “executive session.”

 



 

These headhunting firms end up representing a lot of bad apples. Surely, some of these bad apples will step up and apply for the Palo Alto job because it’s worth a shot to save their floundering career. They figure Palo Alto can’t be worse than the situation they’re now facing.

So if we fire McGee, yes, we’ll get a replacement, but not a very good one.

Clawing back the money

The board’s task at this point should be to solve the two problems I mentioned previously. First, I think the board made the right move last week by saying there will be no raises for teachers or other district employees in the next few years.

The board had decided last year to cancel the 3% across-the-board raises this year because of an unexpected budget shortfall, due to another mistake of incorrectly estimating property tax revenue increases.

McGee and his administrators were supposed to notify the district’s two big two unions by March 15 that they intended to reopen the unions’ collective bargaining agreements. They missed the deadline and the raises went into effect.

The board’s response is that the district will pull the $4.5 million out of the district’s reserves to cover the contract this year, but will get that money back in future years by denying any additional raises.

I’d hope the unions would respond by returning to the bargaining table now and agreeing to give up the raises this year in the hope of getting pay hikes in future years. That would be the best long-term move for the unions, and would buy them some goodwill in the community.

But one way or the other, the board will claw back the $4.5 million.

Sex assaults

The other looming problem involves the district’s decision to allow a Palo Alto High School athlete to return to school after he had been convicted of an Oct. 25, 2015, sexual assault at a church — even though the school’s policy explicitly calls for an expulsion under such circumstances.

After he returned, he allegedly forced a freshman to perform a sex act on him in a Paly bathroom in October 2016.
In December 2016, he was convicted of the 2015 church assault and the next month the court sent a letter to the district confirming the conviction.

Despite district and school policy, he remained at Paly until Channel 2 revealed the conviction in May.

Outside investigation

Since then, the school board has had several closed-door meetings with McGee and hired the law firm of Cozen O’Connor to investigate the situation.

Cozen O’Connor’s report is expected to be released today or tomorrow.

There’s the possibility that the version of the report released to the public will be heavily redacted on the pretense of protecting student or employee confidentiality, and it will be hard for the public to make heads or tails of the investigation.
I hope that doesn’t happen. Transparency is the best way to begin clearing up this problem.

It’s also possible that the investigation will be a whitewash, where the evidence is damning but the conclusion is a hand slap.

Hopefully, the report will recommend actions the board can take immediately to prevent a repeat of the situation involving the Paly athlete and better protect victims of sexual assault or harassment.

That said, the board must start thinking on a long-term basis. Yes, a lot of changes need to be made in the district’s administration. Absolutely, a lot of people need to go. But it’s important that the board make these changes thoughtfully, like a chess player thinking two or three moves ahead, and not as a response to an angry mob who wants a head on a stick.

Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is price@padailypost.com.