The revelation last Friday that top Palo Alto school district administrators never took the necessary steps earlier this year to reopen negotiations with the district's two unions, as directed by the school board in order to cancel a third year of scheduled raises in the face of budget shortfalls, is a shocking and costly display of incompetence and negligence.
It means the district will have to spend as much as $6 million for unbudgeted employee raises and bonuses and make substantial new budget cuts in the months ahead, all because of a missed deadline.
Equally disturbing is the attempt by Superintendent Max McGee, Chief Budget Officer Cathy Mak and the unions to withhold information on how this happened and to explain it away as a simple "misunderstanding" that was quickly resolved to everyone's satisfaction.
The details, as best we could ferret them out over the last five days, are reported today by Weekly education writer Elena Kadvany.
What is clear is that McGee failed to pay attention to the single-most important fiscal issue on his plate this year: the renegotiation of the third year of the union contracts in order to help solve last year's embarrassing crisis — Mak's miscalculation of property-tax revenue.
McGee and his staff missed the March 15 deadline for informing the unions that the district wanted to reopen the final year of contract (this school year), pursuant to a clause McGee himself had earlier heralded as a critical "safety valve" that would allow the district to roll back raises if property-tax revenues fell short, as they did.
His one-paragraph public revelation, buried in last Friday's online "Superintendent's Update," claimed the mistake was a misunderstanding caused by "confusion" over the language in the contract. It was a deliberate effort to obfuscate what had happened, hide it from the public and deflect responsibility.
Even worse, McGee's update initially had no explanation at all, only an announcement that employees would be receiving 3 percent raises. Only when the Weekly asked for an explanation was this opaque statement added: "While we would have preferred to have more flexibility if we reopened the 2017-18 contract, due to some misunderstanding and misinterpretation of contract language, we missed this opportunity. This caused some confusion, but the union and district leadership worked through it and we are moving forward."
This is why properly managed organizations have calendars, tickler files and other procedures for monitoring critically important deadlines.
The Board of Education should be embarrassed and angry that its chief executive has put it in this situation, and the board deserves its own criticism for not issuing a full statement on how and why taxpayers are once again paying millions of dollars due to management failures. The board should also explain why it wasn't asking its own questions about the progress this spring of what should have been negotiations over the third year of the contract, especially when it saw the proposed budget for this year with no salary increases.
And how is it possible that Cathy Mak, who to her credit reminded now-retired Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Scott Bowers about the March 15 deadline, failed to report anything further to the board through the entire budget process nor explain why she included no raises in the budget?
And the two employee unions, which were fully aware that the district intended to roll back their raises in the third year of the contract, said nothing before or after the March deadline. Then astonishingly, they remained silent as McGee and the board put together the budget for this year, with no employee raises, knowing full well that because the deadline had been missed those raises would have to be paid.
The last two years of McGee's chaotic leadership, staff turnover, improper handling of sexual harassment cases, lack of transparency and repeated self-inflicted controversies have whipsawed the community with one tumultuous mismanaged issue after another.
This is the last straw. The school board should ask for McGee's resignation or, if necessary, terminate him.