Protecting Students From Sexual Harassment and Assault

Every student in PAUSD has a right to an education free of harassment and discrimination so that they can enjoy the full benefits of a public school education. As a school board member, I take extremely seriously my obligation to ensure that the district meets its legal and moral obligations to students. Recent reports of the handling of complaints of sexual harassment and sexual assault at Paly have raised legitimate concerns in the community about whether the district’s responses comply with district policy and state and federal law, including Title IX. I share those concerns, and I’m committed to understanding and correcting any deficiencies.

In responding to this situation, it’s critical to have transparency and accountability. The board recently directed a nationally renowned firm, Cozen O'Connor, to examine how the district responded in the recent Paly case. The board has committed to release the results of this independent investigation to the public to the extent possible. The report will inform the board's evaluation of Superintendent McGee's performance and consideration of next steps to improve PAUSD's compliance. This firm is also handling a review of some past incidents as part of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) Resolution Agreement.

I have been strongly concerned with respecting the civil rights of our students -- and sexual harassment and assault are civil rights issues, protected under Title IX and state law  -- since before I joined the school board. In 2013, when the community learned of OCR’s finding that the district had violated the civil rights of a disabled Terman 6th grader by failing to respond properly to her complaints of bullying, I repeatedly urged the board to conduct the type of independent review that we are now undergoing. I wrote at the time that "Shining a light on problems is a necessary first step, whether the issues affect individual students or many of them."

Unfortunately, that board went in a different direction, and refused to publicly discuss the issues and instead protected the actions of the district and staff from scrutiny. When OCR launched an investigation of sexual harassment at Paly in the summer of 2013, the board similarly denied the issues and attacked federal civil rights enforcement. That resistance was a missed opportunity to improve the district's protections for students.

By contrast, the current board recently swiftly approved a resolution agreement with OCR that commits the district to improvements in handling Title IX complaints, enforced by three years of federal monitoring. I will continue to work with my colleagues on the school board to get an accurate understanding of the district’s compliance with board policy and state and federal law, and take whatever steps are necessary to ensure full compliance. All of our students are entitled to attend our community’s schools without fear of discrimination, and with confidence that staff will follow with fidelity the district's policies on sexual harassment and complaint procedures when the need arises.

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Update on OCR and the 2017-18 budget

On Tuesday, February 14 the PAUSD school board will take up two issues with long-term implications for students: addressing the district's budget deficit and putting the district firmly on the path of guaranteeing students an education free of discrimination and harassment.

Office for Civil Rights

In December, the U.S Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) told the district that OCR had found after investigations that the district violated Title IX in several cases at Paly and Gunn. (Title IX is the federal law that protects students against discrimination at school based on sex, including sexual orientation and gender identity). These include cases of sexual harassment, dating violence, and violating professional boundaries by "grooming" of students.

OCR sent PAUSD a proposed Resolution Agreement to help the district achieve and maintain compliance with Title IX and other civil rights laws. The agreement includes policy changes, training, and doing investigations where the original investigations were done incorrectly or not at all.

In my view, the agreement will help the district in ensuring the right of all students to enjoy the benefits of a public education in Palo Alto. The district has worked with OCR, at the direction of Superintendent McGee and the school board, to clarify terms within an overall commitment to accept OCR's guidance. That process is nearly complete, and the board will discuss the final draft on Tuesday with a vote to approve the agreement on February 28. I look forward to supporting the agreement.

The district's approach to OCR now is a marked change from 2012-14, when the school board directed a program of resistance to OCR's investigations that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and worse failed to correct the issues that are now the subject of the new Resolution Agreement. That effort culminated in a resolution adopted by the school board in June 2014. The resolution sharply criticized OCR's investigations in Palo Alto. It also authorized the district to work to reverse OCR’s findings in the Terman case of disability-based bullying that resulted in an OCR finding of legal violations in 2012, and to engage in a lobbying effort to restrict OCR’s investigative authority.

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Weighted GPAs

I am strongly supporting Todd Collins in the upcoming school board election. Todd has also been endorsed by Mayor Pat Burt, the Palo Alto Weekly, the Daily Post, and the Paly Voice, as well as many current and former school board members and other elected officials. Todd brings to the board a decade-long record of effective volunteering, including an analysis of our school bond that saved district taxpayers over $800 million(!). He is the only candidate running for the board who fully grasps the importance of making sound financial decisions. Had he been on the board this past year, we might well have avoided the disastrous decisions to grant unnecessarily high pay raises and to avoid cutting non-educational expenditures that have led to the current budget deficits. Those deficits, in turn, will inevitably result in larger class sizes and less educational services to our students.

Weighted GPAs

There has recently been a lot of discussion about how weighted GPAs are calculated and reported at Paly and Gunn. (Weighted GPAs give extra points to certain classes that are seen as more difficult). Weighted GPAs are covered by an existing PAUSD board policy that requires the superintendent to recommend to the board whether GPAs should be weighted, and if so how. Dr. McGee is in the process of reviewing the district's current practices to make a recommendation. Weighted GPAs do not replace unweighted GPAs, which are the primary mechanism for summarizing student performance in their classes.

Although I have not yet reached a definitive conclusion on how this should be handled, my thinking at this time is that both high schools should include a weighted GPA on student transcripts in some form. For example, the weighted GPA could appear on all transcripts alongside the unweighted GPA. Alternatively, we could do what Ashland High School in Oregon does, which is to provide a separate transcript to the University of Oregon showing only weighted GPA.

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Update on the Budget and District Goals

The school board is meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 13 beginning at 6:30 p.m., and addressing the deficit is again on the agenda. In addition to the board meeting, a town hall/webinar will be held on Thursday, Sept. 15, beginning at 7:00 p.m.

Since the last meeting, the estimated deficit for this year as increased from $3.7 million to $4.2 million, a result of a new estimate from the County Controller.

As you know, I have advocated that the district respond to this ongoing deficit by cutting spending that is not related to teaching. That would protect our ability to hire the teachers that we need to prevent class size increases in the high schools over the next several years, and would preserve the reserves to maintain our teacher corps in the event of an economic downturn. For example, I have proposed that the district rescind the 4% raise to administrators for this year, in order to save approximately half a million dollars a year. There are obvious opportunities to streamline staffing in the district office, by modernizing business and HR operations and eliminating positions that are not mission critical.

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The First Rule of Holes

The school board had our first substantive discussion of PAUSD’s budget deficit on Thursday, August 11. We didn’t get much closer to a solution, unfortunately.

holes2.jpgAs I wrote in a blog post a few weeks ago, the district is facing a revenue shortfall of $5.2 million this year and $9 million next year, compared to the original projections. This year, we need to plug a hole of around $3.3 million, after adjustments and cancellation of a planned 1% bonus to employees. Unless we see extraordinary increases in property tax revenues in the future, this deficit will continue in coming years even with no raises. Even modest raises in the future would produce large multi-million-dollar deficits under any but the most optimistic property tax revenue projections.

The first rule of holes is that when you’re in one, stop digging. The combination of an unnecessarily costly multi-year raise, granted by the board in May, and the mistake in estimating property tax revenues for 2016-17 has left the district with expenses that are higher than revenues. Cutting non-educational expenses should be the first response, because it protects the district’s ability to retain and hire teachers. This is even more important now, as PAUSD high school enrollment will swell by 600 students over the next several years.

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The District's Revenue Mistake: What It Means, What To Do Now

Several weeks ago PAUSD announced that property tax revenues for the 2016-17 school year will be $5.2 million less than estimated in the budget the school adopted in June. The incorrect estimate is largely the result of an oversight by district staff in failing to take into account a large exemption for the new Stanford Hospital construction when projecting property tax revenues.

The biggest risk is to our high school students, who will see sharply increased class sizes unless we act to cut non-educational spending in order to protect our ability to hire needed new teachers at Paly and Gunn. That’s because high school enrollment will increase by around 600 students (around 15%) over the next several years, which means that the district needs to hire 20-25 teachers simply to keep class sizes from rising.

A 15% increase in students with no increase in teachers would mean classes with 30 students might become classes of 35, while teachers with 125 students might now have 145. Those course sizes and teaching loads would make it harder for students to receive individual attention from their teachers and for teachers to provide individual and timely feedback to our students.

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Supporting the Stanford Sexual Assault Survivor

Like many I am deeply concerned about the light sentence -- 6 months in county jail, and 3 years probation -- recently handed down by Judge Aaron Persky in the Stanford sexual assault case. The victim in that case is a graduate of our school district. Millions of people all over the world have been moved by her clear statement of the impact of Brock Turner's crime on her and the moral clarity of her case that sexual assault deserves serious consequences.

Judge Persky had to bend over backwards in order to find a basis for a sentence for Mr. Turner that was below the statutory minimum. I believe that was a serious mistake in judgment that does not reflect the seriousness of sexual assault, and that leaves young women in our community less safe.

I support the effort to recall Judge Persky from office and to replace him with judge who will treat all sexual assault seriously, no matter who commits this crime or where it takes place. I urge you to support that effort by signing up for updates and donating at the recall campaign website. My wife Michele Dauber, a professor at Stanford Law School, is the chair of the recall campaign. 

Board Retreat Monday, June 13

The school board will hold its annual June retreat tomorrow, Monday, June 13, at the Sheraton Hotel in Palo Alto, beginning at 8:30 am. We will be discussing a report on special education services, student wellness, class sizes in our middle and high schools, and district priorities for the 2016-17 school year. I hope that you can join us. I'll provide an update about the discussion in my next blog post.

New Special Education Law Firm

I'm very pleased that on June 7 the board approved a contract with Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo that effectively ends the district's relationship with the law firm Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost (FFF). FFF played a negative role in the district's conflictual relationship with OCR before I joined the board, and in my view contributed significantly to an unnecessarily adversarial stance towards special education families, as I've written before. In addition, I'm hopeful that switching to a new firm will result in lower legal fees for the district.

2016-17 Budget

The school board is set to adopt a budget for 2016-17 at the board meeting on Tuesday, June 21. At the June 7 board meeting I expressed my concern that the budget does not fix the current problem of excessively large class sizes in our high schools, and that it risks greatly increasing class sizes as high school enrollments grow over the next several years.

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For Healthy Teacher Raises and Class Size Reduction

At the school board meeting on Tuesday, the board will consider a three-year contract with the teacher’s union. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to support the proposed contact. In my opinion a sensible contract would enable the district to do two things: provide a healthy raise AND restore smaller class sizes and make other improvements for students in our district. Thankfully, there is plenty of money to afford both of these things due to our recent high property tax revenues, driven by an 11.26% increase this year.

But the proposed contract does not follow this common-sense path.  Instead, the board has tentatively approved a contract that will use the entire surplus to provide salary raises that are well beyond what are needed to attract and retain excellent teachers. That’s not fiscally responsible for the school district, it’s not good for our students, and it’s shortsighted for teachers who would also have benefitted from smaller classes and reduced workloads.

The proposed contract raises teacher salaries by 12% over the next three years, beginning with a 5% raise for the current school year (2015-16) at a cost this year of $7.3 million. It also provides for bonuses totalling 2% in 2017 and 2018, for an additional $2.8 million. With additional raises that are built into the “Step and Column” salary schedule, salaries will go up by nearly 18% over the next three years, raising the district’s annual compensation costs by $25 million a year in 2017-18.


I am a progressive liberal Democrat, a strong supporter of unions, and of fair, competitive pay for our teachers. As in the past, I support a substantial pay increase for teachers, to maintain our position at or near the top of the local and state labor market for teachers. In this case, I would support a more prudent, but still healthy increase of 3% each year (amounting to nearly 5% each year with built-in Step and Column increases). This alternative proposal -- call it the “3+3+3 Plan” -- would be sufficient to enhance the district’s ability to recruit and retain excellent teachers. And it would provide enough funds to hire 35 additional teachers for next year.

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Class Size Relief in the 2016-17 Budget

As the school board sets budget priorities for the 2016-17 school year, it's important to prioritize spending that directly benefits students. In particular, I'm skeptical of spending more money on administration rather than on education. I want district staff to look for increased efficiency and for work that is no longer necessary, as an alternative to increasing headcount in the district office. (That's also why I worked to secure an additional $50,000 for direct mental health services to students for this year, as I report on below).

Class Size Relief in the 2016-17 Budget

Important priorities for new funding next year include full day kindergarten, support for high school athletic programs, and small learning communities at Paly and Gunn. A key funding priority for me for next year is class size reduction in middle school and high school. Smaller class sizes allow teachers to give more attention to individual students and to give timely, meaningful feedback on tests, projects, and homework. Smaller class sizes help students to be known by their teacher and fellow classmates.

At the last school board meeting, several parents from Jordan Middle School made the point that many classes are substantially larger than the district class size targets. Those targets are 24 students for math and English classes (and for all 6th grade classes) and 28.5 students for other classes. Based on their analysis, several more teachers would be needed at Jordan in order to meet size targets. JLS and Terman are also likely not meeting district size targets for each class. I and other board members asked district staff to bring back a proposal for additional teacher hiring to meet our standards. Superintendent McGee's current request for $375,000 for 3 additional middle school teachers -- to be allocated across all 3 schools -- will need to be increased in order to bring class sizes to district standards.

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Full Day Kindergarten and School-based Mental Health

Unlike most school districts in Santa Clara County, PAUSD has not offered full-day kindergarten to our families beyond two pilot programs. Superintendent McGee is bringing a proposal to the school board's budget study session on Tuesday morning, February 23,  to expand full-day kindergarten from the existing pilot programs at Barron Park and Palo Verde. I support that proposal.

Full-day kindergarten was one of the recommendations of the 2015 Minority Achievement and Talent Development task force. The task force identified full-day kindergarten as a critical intervention to prepare all students for success in elementary school and beyond. Full-day kindergarten has strong positive benefits for students' social-emotional and academic preparedness, and it has strong support from the elementary principals and from many elementary parents. Data from the Barron Park and Palo Verde pilots indicates that students realize benefits that persist well beyond kindergarten.

The staff proposal includes two options for full-day kindergarten, one with additional aide support (at a total additional cost of $647,000) and one without additional aide support (costing an additional $347,000). I'll focus in the board discussion on the benefits for students that can be expected from the additional expenditure for aide support. 

Working for Adequate Mental Health Supports for High School Students

The CDC recently launched a study of the tragic suicides among our teens, and it is clear that our community is still reeling from the blow inflicted by the loss of so many of our young people. But beyond these tragedies, many more of our students are struggling with mental health issues. At the February 9 school board meeting, district staff reported that according to the most recent survey data, PAUSD has 600 high school students who have experienced suicidal ideation and 1,200 who have experienced a serious episode of depression in the past year.

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