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.