News


School board approves new chief business officer

District recruits Southern California CBO to replace Cathy Mak

The Palo Alto school board enthusiastically voted 3-0 on Thursday, with two members absent, to approve a three-year contract with Jim Novak, the district's new chief business officer.

The three board members waived the board's two-meeting rule and quickly approved Novak's employment agreement after lauding his hiring as a positive step forward for the district. Novak is currently the assistant superintendent for business services for the Desert Sands Unified School District in La Quinta. The district purposefully recruited him for the Palo Alto position, Superintendent Don Austin said.

"This is a real coup," said board President Ken Dauber.

Dauber said he was particularly impressed by Novak's "expertise in operations" as well as a "commitment to transparency in presenting the district's financial state and ... past implementation of a return-on-investment approach where we do our best to identify the cost and benefits of the decisions that we're making in terms of their impact on the educational mission and the alternatives that we have available to us."

Novak has a long career in school finance, serving as chief business officer or assistant superintendent for the Long Beach Unified, Palm Springs Unified and South San Francisco Unified school districts. He started his career as an auditor, and one of the first industries he worked with was school districts, he said in an interview Friday. He did public accounting for nine years before taking his first job in public education.

Novak will replace outgoing Chief Business Officer Cathy Mak, who plans to retire in October after 25 years in the district. He will take over a highly scrutinized department that has come under fire in recent years for budget mishaps, including a 2016 misestimate of property tax revenue that created a multimillion-dollar shortfall and a contractual error last year that cost the district $4.4 million in unbudgeted raises.

Board member Terry Godfrey said she was also pleased to see a "simplified" contract that gives the district more flexibility, with no "me too" or automatic compensation increases nor additional stipends for advanced degrees, automobile allowance or moving expenses. Novak will be paid an annual salary of $265,000.

"I know we're moving toward a place where all costs are right up front," she said. "I appreciate that this is one-stop shopping and you can see what the number is."

Mak's most recent three-year contract started in 2017 with an annual salary of $212,412, plus a monthly car allowance, cell phone allowance and stipend for a master's degree, among other benefits.

Parent Kathy Jordan, who is running for a seat on the school board, however, criticized the district's decision to offer Novak a multiyear contract. She called his employment conditions "generous" and suggested the district should be more fiscally responsible given the financial errors in recent years and budget deficits ahead.

In response to a board member's question, Austin said that two- to three-year agreements are "standard" and that Novak's contract makes sense given it is "very, very, very difficult" to recruit for this position.

Novak said the job opening wasn't on his radar until a friend asked if he might be interested. He was drawn to Palo Alto Unified as an "extraordinary system" that "get(s) extraordinary results."

He said he places high emphasis on continuous improvement, listening and transparency. As an example, he said in Desert Sands -- a 29,000-student district with a $344 million budget -- he created a maintenance team in response to principals' concerns that facilities issues on their sites weren't being taken care of in a timely fashion. The team would travel from school to school in a trailer and stay on one campus for a few days to two weeks.

"That made a huge difference to the principals because instead of just responding to needs and doing things as they go ... they got a lot of things done," he said.

Novak described Palo Alto Unified's financial state as "strong." He declined to comment on the district's recent financial errors.

"I don't think it's fair ... until I'm there to actually comment on that," he said.

Novak said Austin has communicated to him that "transparency of all business services operations is critical."

"I think people have high expectations and want to understand — the district does really well in a lot of things but (there's) an expectation that we do even better," he said.

He plans to prioritize "communicating, listening to people and being very transparent about the process and making sure we have a collaborative approach to solving problems."

With about a month until school starts, Austin is negotiating Novak's start date with the Desert Sands superintendent. The district is hoping Novak will start on Sept. 1 to allow overlap between him and Mak.

Vice President Jennifer DiBrienza and board member Todd Collins were absent from Thursday's special meeting.

---

Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.

Comments

2 people like this
Posted by huh?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 20, 2018 at 6:39 am

"Palo Alto school board enthusiastically voted 3-0 on Thursday, with two members"
"The three board members waived the board's two-meeting rule"

Is this legal? Isn't there some kind of quorum or can 3 board members just meet and ignore the other two?


3 people like this
Posted by Hoover parent
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 20, 2018 at 7:15 am

A quorum on a five member board is 3 members. Since all 3 voted yes, there was also a majority of the whole board in favor. So yes, it's legal.


Like this comment
Posted by huh?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 20, 2018 at 8:04 am

>A quorum on a five member board is 3 members.

I couldn't find this - where does it state that 3 is the PAUSD's board's quorum? A quorum's not the same as a majority.


5 people like this
Posted by How about this?
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 20, 2018 at 8:28 am

With all of PAUSD’s financial challenges, how about a 1 year position for Chief Business Officer instead? If the CBO does a great job, his/her contract can be renewed after a year. If not, then PAUSD and CBO can easily part ways after a year without any financial impact or other time-consuming HR issues.

Please note that 1 year positions do exist.

“SCUSD (Sacramento) has 77 school sites with an overall enrollment of 42,965 K-12 students. We are the 13th largest District in the state and one of the largest employers in the region.”

Sacramento City Unified School District has posted for a 12 month position for chief business officer for their district.

“SACRAMENTO CITY UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT
CHIEF BUSINESS OFFICER
INVITATION TO APPLY FOR THE POSITION OF
CHIEF BUSINESS OFFICEER (CLASSIFIED SENIOR MANAGEMENT)
This position is for the 2018- 2019 school year; starting July 1, 2018
This is a 12-month position”

Web Link


5 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 20, 2018 at 10:00 am

The contract is a 3 year deal with no built in raises and a six month severance provision. The severance is meaningless with a one year contract. You can't get a strong candidate to relocate with no severance. It's an acceptable risk.

Quorum - Ed Code - this applies to county boards, but I'm sure the same applies to local boards - Web Link


2 people like this
Posted by huh?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 20, 2018 at 10:54 am

@Resident,

Even if that does apply to local boards, having a simple majority wave the two meeting rule is a governance issue. Hence the legality question. The whole point of the two-meeting rule and we have a 3 board members using it to avoid meetings where the other two board members may well have been able to attend.

It's not like this is simple rubber stamping. The board increased the salary for a male candidate by $50,000 over a long term retiring female employee.

Though, with the legal spending out of control, recent decision to spend more legal funds fighting Santa Clara county and overall complete lack of oversight, I'm not surprised this board has any concern for pay equality or governance issues.


Like this comment
Posted by Stew Pid
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 20, 2018 at 11:15 am

@huh?
It's not meaningful to see everything in terms of gender. The explanation is likely that to attract new talent, regardless of gender, you have to pay more than you pay someone who is already in the position with vested pension benefits. Supply and demand at work.


3 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 20, 2018 at 11:16 am

The two meeting rule can be waived by "two-thirds vote of those present and voting" per Board Policy 9323. Sounds like they did that, so not sure what the issue is.

FWIW, all five board members attended a closed session two days ago that included the CBO contract on the agenda. So one would presume they were well informed on the issue and likely already in agreement.

"Pay equality" - that one drew a guffaw. They were underpaying before and evidently got what they paid for. Austin seems to have recruited a strong candidate, and it seems like they sensibly nailed him down.


Like this comment
Posted by huh?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 20, 2018 at 11:34 am

@ Resident
"The two meeting rule can be waived by "two-thirds vote of those present and voting" per Board Policy 9323. Sounds like they did that, so not sure what the issue is. "

That sure gave me a laugh! Thought I agree they milked that line for all it's worth, if that's what they did!


"They were underpaying before and evidently got what they paid for. Austin seems to have recruited a strong candidate, and it seems like they sensibly nailed him down."

Well, I agree with your first part at least. Check out the salaries for Chief Business Officers and you'll certainly see we were overpaying before. The problem is, they've just decided to overpay even more! And on the back of only three board members and voiding the two-meeting rule!


@Stew Pid
It's all in the name isn't it. You're simply repeating debunked argument against any pay disparity. With your attitude, nothing will change.


3 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 20, 2018 at 11:52 am

I'm not sure where you are seeing CBO salaries. PAUSD is the upper end of the range on most positions, as they have to be given the local cost of living and their desire for strong people. CBO wasn't one of them and they paid the price.

Some people seem to think the school board isn't a "typical" elected body and somehow should go above and beyond the written rules. They wanted to get something done, and did it within the rules. In my mind, that's how it is supposed to work. If the absent members want to object for the record, they can just call the paper and I'm sure they would be happy to report it.


Like this comment
Posted by huh?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 20, 2018 at 12:12 pm

You don't need to go any further than looking at Novak's current pay: $210,049.00

This board is yet again failed abysmally in its fiduciary duties.


Like this comment
Posted by R. Davis
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 20, 2018 at 12:21 pm

QUOTE: You don't need to go any further than looking at Novak's current pay: $210,049.00

I don't have kids in PAUSD schools anymore but is this guy worth that kind of money?

A simple 'yes' OR 'no' response will suffice.


2 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 20, 2018 at 12:28 pm

"Dauber said he was particularly impressed by Novak's "expertise in operations" as well as a "commitment to transparency in presenting the district's financial state and ... past implementation of a return-on-investment approach where we do our best to identify the cost and benefits of the decisions that we're making in terms of their impact on the educational mission and the alternatives that we have available to us."

PAEA should be on the alert- sounds like Novak will be resistant to pay raises, thereby complementing Austin?


14 people like this
Posted by Voter
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 20, 2018 at 12:59 pm

"Parent Kathy Jordan, who is running for a seat on the school board, however, criticized the decision to offer a multiyear contract. She called his employment conditions "generous" and suggested the district should be more fiscally responsible given the financial errors in recent years and budget deficits ahead."

So Jordan would have voted not to hire him and hold out for someone who would take a lower salary and a short contract? To save a few thousand dollars? PAUSD's budget is north of $200 million. What sense does it make to compromise on the quality of the financial management? Jordan wants to complain about fiscal mismanagement and then quibble about what it costs to fix the problem. Not a good look for a would-be school board member.


7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 20, 2018 at 1:42 pm

You might have noticed it is expensive around here. Less so in the La Quinta area, where this person is from (based on where his district is headquartered). Looking at this cost of living calculator (Web Link) it looks like he will come out behind despite the raise.

The main point is that to schools needed to improve their financial management. If he does that, he is well worth the price. If not, they did a bad job whatever they are paying him.


2 people like this
Posted by huh?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 20, 2018 at 3:49 pm

@voter,

This isn't what it costs to fix the problem. Take a look at the business officer salaries in comparable or neighboring districts. There is absolutely no reason that PAUSD should be paying this much.

This board just doesn't understand the value of money. "$2M legal expenses for the year, yeah, we'll toss another $40K to fight Santa Clara", "$6M in salary raises, yeah, couldn't be bothered to see if the union had been notified", "$265,000 for a position that was previously far below that, yeah, but it's a guy, we need to pay them more!"

The board has shown they're very good at wasting the district's money. This is the last in a long line. At least Kathy is trying to stand up to them whether you agree with here or not. Not seeing you in the board meetings.


8 people like this
Posted by Board Watcher
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 20, 2018 at 6:02 pm

@huh, details may not be your thing, but in case others care: they approved a maximum of $20K (not $40K) to pay a lawyer to help oppose Stanford (not the County) by putting them on record as objecting to the environmental impact report on Stanford's GUP application. Collins has been saying this is worth up to $30 million a year plus the need for a new school, so $20K to protect their position seems like money well spent.

Since they are hiring a CBO right now, it isn't apt to look at Transparent California at what smaller neighboring districts paid 2 years ago based on contracts struck 1-3 years before. Look up what Santa Clara just spent to hire their new CBO; or the County education office last year. Those are better comps.


Like this comment
Posted by George
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 20, 2018 at 7:39 pm

Seems like salary is based on some other place, some other standard and a contract not tied in any way to result. If Palo Alto schools brought a person in to meet specific targets for specific rewards at least the citizens could expect some benefit. As it stands, or seems to stand, PAUSD is again, just padding the payroll. The argument that we just can’t get the talent unless PA outbids everyone else is ridiculous.

Results are important. The cities budgets, and staff rewards, should always be tied to results. This appointment just seems like more wage inflation.


12 people like this
Posted by Hoover parent
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 20, 2018 at 7:48 pm

George seems upset that there's a labor market and the district can't just set the wage it wants to pay. This guy isn't getting any pay raise automatically, which is a big change for the district. But being upset about the pay of the guy who is being paid a tenth of a percent of the budget to manage it is silly.


Like this comment
Posted by George
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 20, 2018 at 8:44 pm

if the challenge is described as how to get a business manager to leave some other school district then yes, you have to offer an incentive. The article describes the candidate’s big win as dispatching the districts maintenance staff to rescue serious maintenance issues. Why was that necessary if the district’s maintenance was well managed to begin with? Communication and transparancy is promised. Those should be standard attributes of any candidate in this position.

So, my concern was what is the school board expecting in terms of results and how is his compensation linked to that. Without that, it’s another expensive employee with expensive benefits and retirement leaving the community with only the hope that a good outcome - which is better results at a lower cost - follow.

The HooverParent says that there is a tight labor market that sets the price and says PAUSD should be happy to get what it can. That may be true if the only pool is the closed fraternity of school admisistrators and cash is needed incentive to lure them to PA. Perhaps. My concern is that that pool may just rotate in a fresh new mediocre result. Managing the school’s business should have goals and the school board, if it can’t find highly promising talent within other districts to put the job out for other candidates with business talent.



9 people like this
Posted by Let’s try quality
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 21, 2018 at 7:57 am

A warm sandwich with a calendar could outperform our previous business manager.

Let’s try something higher up the evolutionary chain. If we don’t like it, we can go back to hiring idiots. As an experiment, 3 years will cost us $600K. Which is far less than the $6M we spent on the last experiment.

I don’t see any danger here, other than the built-in-job-for-life-with-no-accountability ideology that pervades the district. If he proves incompetent we need to walk him out the door.

That rule should become the norm around here. Then we’ll be less worried about hiring talent.

We’re hiring him, not marrying him.


Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Terman Middle School
on Jul 24, 2018 at 6:26 am

Mak, Novak, who’s next? Bill the Cat?
Ack!


Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Terman Middle School
on Jul 24, 2018 at 6:46 am

Well just as a test —between me and you dear fellow reader —I’m a gonna call this Novak fellow at a number I found on the internet and offer to buy for $300,000 using money my parents left in a donor advised fund his doctoral degree he got at an online for profit university called Walden, then hightail into the woods until they catch us both, thereby saving my neighbors that $212,412 of real money.
Or, what is the frequency Kenneth?


Like this comment
Posted by Multiyear contract
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jul 29, 2018 at 5:51 pm

How many of those parents and residents who finance the school district have a multiyear contract from their work?


Like this comment
Posted by silly comments
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 18, 2018 at 11:48 am

a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 20, 2018 at 12:12 pm
You don't need to go any further than looking at Novak's current pay: $210,049.00

This board is yet again failed abysmally in its fiduciary duties.

What a silly comment. The $ 210, 000 salary is for La Quinta in the Coachella Valley, where a house costs $ 400,000.

What does a house cost on the Peninsula ? What are Bay Area costs.

Totally delusional statement


Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 21, 2018 at 12:25 pm

Many things in education are subject to privacy restrictions and concerns. Unfortunately, that can devolve into secretiveness, something that has become a major problem at PAUSD.

I'm looking forward to the "transparency of all business services operations" that has been promised.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

Round Table Pizza bites the dust in downtown Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 19 comments | 6,891 views

Local Transit to the Rescue?
By Sherry Listgarten | 33 comments | 3,491 views

Eating Green on the Green – August 25
By Laura Stec | 6 comments | 1,434 views

Moral Panic, again on guns
By Douglas Moran | 19 comments | 1,213 views

"The 5 Love Languages" by Gary Chapman
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,007 views

 

Register now!

​On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

More Info