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.

Repeal of the June 2014 school board resolution will be on the February 14 agenda. It is on the agenda because I raised the question of repealing the resolution in a discussion at our last board meeting, and other board members asked that it be placed on a future agenda.

The actions authorized by the resolution are not in the best interest of our students and district, and the resolution as a whole is inconsistent with the cooperative relationship with OCR that the current board and senior staff support. Repeal will also put the district on the right side of the issue of civil rights enforcement. Unfortunately, that is particularly important as the Trump Administration and Secretary of Education Betsy Devos are moving to cut back student civil rights, including OCR's enforcement ability. Trump appointed Jerry Falwell Jr. to lead a task force against federal "overreach" in civil rights, including Title IX enforcement. Trump is also ceasing the federal government's support for civil rights for transgender students.

I do not want Palo Alto to be cited as support for the right's attack on civil rights in education. Sadly, that has already happened, as mentioned in the staff report in the board packet. For example, the Texas School Board Association pointed to PAUSD's "boldly public challenge to the authority of a federal agency" as support for its own critical stance towards OCR. The National School Boards Association (NSBA) has also cited PAUSD's "push-back" against OCR. The NSBA has consistently criticized the progress OCR made under President Obama, and recently filed a legal brief in the Supreme Court arguing against OCR guidance in support of a transgender student's rights in a Virginia case.

Budget deficit
The board will begin discussion of the 2017-18 district budget at a study session in the morning of February 14, from 8 to 10AM. My major goal in forming a budget for next year is to protect spending that directly benefits students’ education, and to cut back on spending that does not. It's particularly critical that the district be able to hire new teachers for Paly and Gunn to prevent class size increases over the next several years, as enrollment increases by hundreds of students at each school between now and 2020.

As the board works through this process, I will be looking to Superintendent McGee to present a comprehensive list of specific cutbacks that can be made, with a focus on administrative functions. The staff recommendations to this point are a good start, but we need to go into much more detail about areas for improving efficiency and reducing cost. The budget "solutions" that the board has adopted to this point rely too heavily on spending reserves and borrowing, and not enough on savings in positions and spending that don't benefit student learning. I’m optimistic that new board members and the continued seriousness of the district’s financial situation will result in a budget that makes the necessary hard choices to put teaching and learning first.

I hope that you will join the board at one or both of these meetings on Tuesday, and in future meetings. Citizen participation is a great help to decisionmaking, and I appreciate the chance to hear your views whether or not they agree with mine.

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