The Paly Voice sat down with Palo Alto Unified School District Supt. Max McGee to discuss topics ranging from the latest budget mismanagement to the achievement he is most proud of as superintendent. McGee, who has served in this role since 2014, announced in June his plan to retire at the end of the 2017-2018 school year.
Note: the below quotes are excerpts.
1. How has the beginning of the school year been going for the district?
I’ve had a chance to get to both high schools, just one of the middle schools, about half of the elementary schools, and I’m really sensing this great renewal of school spirit. I’ve seen some great teaching at the elementary level with our new math program, the middle school level with engaging the students and getting them out of their seats. And at the high schools, I’ve just seen a lot of enthusiasm from the teachers and students — diving right into the learning. I was also really happy to see during Back to School Night teachers talking about easing back on homework, being more flexible about homework. Aside from the tragedy at Gunn, I think it’s really been a phenomenal year so far.
2. The Aug. 15 suicide of a Gunn senior rattled the community, including a few people who spoke about it at this school year’s first board meeting. Suicide has been something that the community has been battling with for quite some time, and community members are frustrated that it’s still happening. What do you think the district needs to do to address suicide?
I think we’ve done a lot. We’ve opened the wellness centers, we’ve hired more mental health staff and counselors, at Gunn we went to a block schedule and provided more time between classes for teachers to connect with students. I think the students have done a great job with their own mental health clubs. … I think we’ve done a good job of alerting parents to signs of depression and I think we’ve worked hard to destigmatize counseling. We have a whole new set of outside support now with CASSY [Counseling and Support Services for Youth]. So I think we’ve done a lot. Every case is individual, and I think what we need to do is continue to be vigilant for signs. I think we need to take these signs seriously, and find ways to support each other. Also, a lot of this involves parent and student education that high school is not about getting into the best college or competing for the highest grade point average. I think that’s really important. And I think a great deal of pressure students put on themselves, even more than parents, even more than teachers. They want to get into a top college, and it’s kind of a competitive environment. I think we need to realize that what colleges are looking for more is students who have a voice and have something authentic that drives them. And if they haven’t quote-on-quote found a passion, they will. That really involves a lot of parent and student education, and that’s something we’ll be working on this year.
3. The law firm Cozen O’Connor has yet to publicly release its findings from the investigation triggered by last year’s sexual assault allegations. How do you think you, as well as other district officials, handled the allegations? Is there anything you would change about your response?
I think everybody did the best job for the students that they were trying to do. I think what the investigation will show is that there was a lack of coordination between school and district, certainly a lack of coordination between school and outside sources, such as the police … and a lack of documentation in some cases. We’re changing some systems now. We’re hiring a special coordinator as a full-time job – compliance officer– who can really help coordinate this and make sure the investigations get done properly and make sure there are written notices sent out on time. So I think people were doing the best they could with what they had, but they did not have enough knowledge, they did not have the organizational structure that enabled them to coordinate with one another and also with the police and outside world — the juvenile court system, other schools. That’s what I mean by outside world.
4. How did the latest budget mismanagement come about?
Two things. First of all, it was a misunderstanding of all parties. We started talking last September, with the tax shortfall, that there would not be a three percent raise in the third year of the contract. The understanding was that because of the budget shortfall, that three percent raise was off the table. The way we learned about this was a 12-month employee did not get a three percent raise in July, which was the first month of the 2017-2018, and said “why not”? And everybody, including his own union and others, said it’s off the table. And they looked at the contract, and there was a date in there whereby either the union or the administration had to formally reopen the contract. So the individual, who is no longer employed by the district, who was in charge of managing the contract, did not send a formal letter to reopen it. As superintendent, the buck stops with me. I was not made aware that there was not a reopener, but, again, I’m the boss, so certainly I will share the blame. But it was really a misunderstanding on everybody’s part, and a mistake. So it wasn’t either-or, it was both-and. The money goes to teachers, the three percent goes to teachers and classified staff. And they work hard for their money, they do an excellent job, and I think this three percent raise was hard-earned. I would’ve liked to reopen the contract in August, rather than just say “automatic three percent” because we would’ve negotiated something. But the teachers and the classified staff still would’ve gotten an increase, so I think in that way the article and the paper [“The $6 million blunder,” published by Palo Alto Online on Sept. 1] is misleading because it certainly wouldn’t have been zero, and it probably wouldn’t have been three percent. But they certainly would’ve gotten a salary increase. And I think, frankly, the three percent is going to keep us where we are relative of other school districts. Not the top, not the bottom, and it’s going to help us recruit new teachers, it’s going to help us retain our good teachers. We will, yes, probably have to make more budget cuts next year — not this year, next year — and we may not fill some positions that are open now.
As far as the management of money, we finished last year with a $400,000 surplus. So I think we’re doing a good job of managing our money. There need to be internal structures so that there’s better communication systems internally, and that was not the case. So it was a misunderstanding, it was a mistake, and I don’t begrudge the teachers. … We’ll make the necessary budget adjustments to keep our budget balanced.
5. What is the achievement you’re most proud of as superintendent?
For the elementaries, it’s full-day kindergarten, and I think that really helps all our students be prepared, not just academically, but really socially, emotionally for school. I think it’ll especially be helpful to those at-risk students, who come in without the background that our more wealthy students have.
Middle school, what I’m really proud of is we’ve made our math laning practices more fluid. … It used to be basically where you were in sixth grade determined where you graduated in high school. I think we’re really doing a better job of teaching mathematics, and not just arithmetic. There’s a difference.
High school, without question, it’s the Advanced Authentic Research Program — the fact that we have students doing these projects that matter to them, that they get to work with mentors, that they learn the difference between real science and school science.
6. What is your biggest regret as superintendent?
I like the fact that we had a long-term contract for employees, but we should have done a better job with the language on it. Having that deadline date for reopening was a mistake, and there are also some dates that were wrong in it. I think the principle was a good idea, but I don’t think the document was as well-written as it could have been. So I regret that.
Philosophically, I really don’t like weighted grades, but I think we ended up with the best possible solution given that we now have weighted grades, but not for freshmen. Had I had my draw, we wouldn’t have weighted grades. Being the superintendent, and being the leader involves listening. While I philosophically didn’t agree with weighted grades, I’m glad I listened to students in the community, and we have a solution that I think is both academically sound and socially emotionally sound as well.
7. Upon taking the job here, one of your priorities was to promote transparent communication. How do you think the district has done in terms of transparency under your leadership, and what do you think it needs to do in future years to make sure the community has access to information it deserves?
I think [we’ve done] good. … I do write a note every Friday. It goes to Schoology and it has for the last three years. This year, I started a Twitter account. You’ll see in this Friday’s message I’m doing outside office hours at every school. … I think we’ve done a good job of having student focus groups, I think we’ve done a great job of getting survey information to make decisions. It can always be better, but I think we’ve really improved on a lot the last three years.
8. One of the main branches of this year’s district goals, like those of last year, is equity and access. Can you elaborate on some of the district’s efforts to promote equity, including trying to hire more teachers from historically underrepresented groups?
I think it’s really important for our Latino, African American students — and Tongan students — to see teachers that look like them teaching core classes: teaching math, teaching English, teaching science, teaching social studies. So we are making a concerted effort to assure that we have a high quality, diverse staff. We hired an equity coordinator, we’ve hired parent engagement specialists, again, all from historically underrepresented groups, and I think it’s not only good for the historically underrepresented students — frankly, I think it’s good for every student. There’s a much wider world than Palo Alto. And now that we’ve hired a more diverse workforce, we need to retain them and keep them here, and provide that kind of support. I think we’ve made progress, I think we can do more. This year was a good year, as was last year, but last year we lost some of the new faculty and staff that we hired. This year, it’s my goal not to lose any. If we’re doing a good job of hiring and a good job of developing our staff, we’re going to retain everyone, unless they need to move for personal circumstances.
9. What is your biggest takeaway from this job?
I love it. It’s a dynamic, thriving district, and I think there’s still untapped potential to really provide some more innovative programs and services to make our big schools smaller, to do much more with integrated learning, to provide more student agency in their learning. I think we’re moving in the right direction. I’ve been a superintendent for 30 years, so I’m really looking forward to retiring, but I’m also looking forward to leaving this district in a great place for my successor, so that he or she can sustain and grow some of these efforts that we’re doing. It’s a fabulous place to work; I’ve loved every minute of it, even the hard times. I’m the kind of guy that likes challenges. It has its challenging moments, but I’m proud of what we’ve all done together. Just reflecting, what I’ve really appreciated is how I think we’ve grown together as a district culture, but still retained autonomy at the school sites. When I got here, I think one thing that was lacking was this idea of a district culture and district vision. I think all the schools had their own vision and did well doing their own thing, but now it’s a really nice balance. I’m feeling Alexander Hamilton-ish from time to time — just having a nice balance between the central and individual schools.
10. What are your future plans?
I’m planning on doing some consulting work in the field of education and leadership. I plan to get back to doing some coaching. My grandson’s going into high school, and I did a lot of coaching of my own kids, did a lot of coaching in my early days. Baseball and football primarily, and lacrosse. I’m looking forward to doing that, and doing consulting, and helping schools and districts and teachers and students. It needs to be more part time and less of a full time. I’m 67. Forty-five years in education and 30 as a superintendent.