News

New school business official advises 'judicious' spending approach

Board discusses staffing ratios, special-education costs

Palo Alto Unified Board of Education members said they wanted fresh eyes on the budget when they hired Jim Novak to be the district's first new chief business officer in a decade.

He delivered on that at a budget study session last Thursday, providing a clear breakdown of inefficiencies that are costing the district unnecessarily and growing financial pressures that the board must prepare for. He recommended a "judicious" approach to spending on new programs in the coming year.

"If we do nothing different than what we have currently budgeted we will be — and I put that in quotes — 'fine,'" Novak told the board. "That means no salary increases. That means no new programs. That means no new nothing. That's not acceptable."

Novak, who was hired last summer from a Southern California district to replace longtime chief business officer Cathy Mak, suggested that the board "designate next year as a year to tighten the budget up."

Given salaries and benefits make up 86 percent of the district's $251 million budget, Novak suggested looking more critically at staffing ratios, including combining classes with low enrollment and adjusting staffing to match enrollment levels, to cut down on overstaffing. At the elementary schools, for example, uneven grade-level staffing ratios — classes ranging in size from 20 to 27 — have resulted in two to four additional full-time teachers, he said. He estimates there are approximately 20 full-time teachers over contractual and stated ratios at the middle schools and about 15 at the high schools.

A district practice of only adding and never subtracting teachers after the initial "14th day" enrollment reports that come in at the start of a new school year also contributes to overstaffing, Novak said. The district could have collapsed three to four classes at that point this fall, he said, which would have resulted in about $400,000 to $500,000 in savings.

Palo Alto Unified's average per-pupil ratio (the number of students per full-time teacher) is much lower than the Santa Clara County average: 14.9 compared to the county's 21.2 in 2016-17, the most recent year data is available.

Novak suggested phasing in a new approach to staffing over two years and to work towards negotiating with the teachers union having the same class sizes averages within levels, rather than the current contractual ratios that differ for grades and subject levels.

He warned that stricter staffing ratios, however, will result in larger class sizes. Controlling class size, particularly at the high schools, has become a priority at the board level in recent years.

Board members discussed the value and cost of providing a wide variety of classes to students.

"I would certainly benefit from a clear framework about how to understand these tradeoffs," said board member Ken Dauber. "Variety is something we should talk about. I think we are paying for that and we don't know how much we're paying so we're sort of treating it as free."

Board member Melissa Baten Caswell stressed that "variety and enrichment" is what draws families to Palo Alto Unified.

"I don't want to kill that," she said. "We should understand the cost of it but we should also understand the value it's providing to our community."

The district is also facing pressure from increased costs in special education, professional services and pensions, Novak said. The district has budgeted $43.1 million for special education this year, up 11.6 percent from four years ago. Assistant Superintendent of Strategic Initiatives and Operations Lana Conaway, who oversees special education, said she believes the department should have a dedicated budget person to aid in planning and overall financial management. Novak also suggested the district "tighten" procedures for assigning special-education aides and look at increasing the special-education services Palo Alto Unified provides to cut down on the number of out-of-district placements the district is paying for.

In a letter on behalf of the Palo Alto Council of PTAs and Palo Alto CAC for Special Education, a group of parents criticized the budget presentation as "incomplete" as it relates to the district and board's stated intent to reform and invest in special education.

"We find that this budget study fails to consider the needs of special education students, and points only to their costs. Ours, is not an 'ill-guided' 'stakeholder approach,'" reads the letter, quoting from Novak's presentation, "this is the law -- a Free and Appropriate Education. We have seen that, historically, the district will be spending the money for FAPE regardless of whether it is part of the budget and systemic reform, or otherwise expended through unbudgeted legal fees."

To address growing pension costs, Novak recommended waiting several years to set aside funds "as our budget situation improves." For this year, the district has budgeted $25.3 million for CalSTRS (California State Teachers' Retirement System) and $6.7 million for CalPERS (California Public Employees' Retirement System), both of which are expected to rise in coming years.

At least one board member, however, disagreed, advising a more prudent approach.

"When a pension reckoning comes, those who have put themselves in a better position will suffer less," said Vice President Todd Collins.

Novak also advised halting a practice of using one-time funds for items in the district's operating budget, which he described as "kicking the can down the road." Though changing this practice would create "short-term pain," it will benefit the district long term, he said.

"I believe there are so many practices that we can do better in this district and free up money," Novak said.

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Comments

11 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 5, 2019 at 8:46 am

So according to this article and to PAUSD's own staffing ratios, PAUSD is overstaffed in a number of areas where it may not be needed and understaffed in others, like perhaps special education, even though more dollars have been devoted there, but academic results still seriously lag. And PAUSD refuses to cut staff and sort things out, adhering to some “policy” of only 'adding' staff after the 14th day enrollment check.

Sounds like a great employment program for PAUSD teachers! Job security! And on our dime....

Also according to the article, staff salaries and benefits represent 86% of PAUSD's budget, giving little room to grow, at the district with the highest per student spending in the state --- $20k/student/year. And with crippling state required pension costs to boot. What's the teacher's union to do...

How about try to extract money from Stanford over the Stanford GUP process? How else to find a new and reliable spigot of money going forward?


Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 6, 2019 at 9:21 am

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

[Post removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 6, 2019 at 11:38 am

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

I wish to amend or addend to state that I have not actually met Dr. Novak and have heard some positive responses about his performance so far. But as a student of Borgsteadt, Froli, Hawkinson, Hinders, Struthers, Farrell, Mayberry, Grippo et al I am a snob about education.


1 person likes this
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 6, 2019 at 3:39 pm

> Also according to the article, staff salaries and benefits represent 86% of
> PAUSD's > budget, giving little room to grow,

Schools across the country often spend about 85% of their revenues on labor.

> the district with the highest per student spending in the state

While PAUSD is towards the top of the ladder (at about $20K per student) where CA school costs are concerned, it is not the highest.

What's scary is that simple projectionss of revenue growth at the PAUSD will see the cost-to-educate students at/about $40K in just ten years or so. This, of course, assumes that the price of real estate will double in that time frame. It's anyone's guess just how much real estate prices will grow--but with roughly half of every property tax dollar claimed by the PAUSD--there is a lot of money in the District's future which will likely result in doubling of staff salaries.




1 person likes this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 7, 2019 at 3:51 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

Novak has a PhD from Walden, according to the PAUSD press release, from July, and reported here.


3 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 7, 2019 at 5:32 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

We should try to see how many Palo Altans we can get to, like “Dr. Novak” get a “PhD” from “Walden University”.

Here’s the link.
Web Link
I think you need a major credit card. If you are under 18, you should probably get your parents’ permission. That would be funny if, as a prank, all the kids from Terman did this. We can start a rumor that 8th graders with diploma mill PhDs do not have to do homework.


1 person likes this
Posted by Not Again
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 10, 2019 at 7:27 pm

At about 1:07 of the 2/28/2019 Special Budge Study Session Web Link

The new Board member said bringing Special Education in house would save money on Non Public (NPS) schools - he is wrong.

It is an easy, but misleading, conclusion.

First, PAUSD already did it. For the past 10 years PAUSD has said it had brought services in house. It created new classes, such as Asperger social skills classes in middle school and high school. It created mental health programs. It spent more each year.

It failed.

Kids still needed NPS schools and not PAUSD. Why? Because PAUSD is the wrong environment. Disabled kids need to be in schools of 100 kids or less, not thousands. All PAUSD schools are too big to make this work.

Children are moved to NPS schools after suicide attempts, self injury, sexual abuse by teachers, extensive bullying by typical students, angry teachers who blame disabled for their disability - then they need to be moved to NPS schools. It is not because PAUSD does not have enough procedures to place them there. They are already there, and their purpose is to delay and prevent kids from getting to the right school.

All the new Board Member is saying is he wants to force kids back to the wrong schools because it will save money. It just looks that way. It ignores the fact that an NPS tuition costs less PAUSD pays for a full time aide and services for a child in the District, for example. This is not transparent because PAUSD costs are spread over many different departments and areas, while NPS schools show up as a single lump sum tuition amount.

NPS schools, and by extension the disabled children who attend them, are vulnerable children, and are an easy target.

We've been through this before. Please, don't start this cycle again.


1 person likes this
Posted by Not Again
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 10, 2019 at 7:41 pm

Regarding the discussion about Palo Alto Community Childcare (PACCC) at the 2/28/2019 Special Budge Study Session Web Link :

We support PACCC, we donate to pack, we volunteer for PACCC, but the discussion was not entirely accurate. PAUSD does give PACC a subsidy is for programs and students on its PAUSD campuses, not just for a special sub category of preschool kids. PAUSD does not have a real preschool program, except for some early start and Pre-K due to early birth dates.

PAACC is a wonderful day care program. But PAUSD is a school district, not a day care, and I question if it should be subsiding a private entity, even a helpful non profit one. Day care is not the reason PAUSD exists. Day care is not something PAUSD is good at. There are many other area programs in the area that are high quality, and much cheaper than PACCC.

The PAUSD subsidy is unfair because it benefits only the few students who obtain the limited spaces in a PACCC on-campus program. My family was lucky enough to gain these spaces, but I never thought it was fair to all the other children who didn't. It is a fundamental violation of what a public school is for: open to all.

Since PAUSD can never fit all day care needed on PAUSD campuses, we need to think about putting our resources where they are more fairly distributed. If there are educational programs that are not funded, money needs to go there first, not day care subsidies benefiting a single organization.


1 person likes this
Posted by PA Parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 14, 2019 at 4:29 pm

@Not Again

You are my hero!!!

This is very true all the way down to the suicide attempts! Being disabled in PAUSD is like being committed to a sanitorium and no one to help you escape. Pure torture! Crimes are being committed. The School Board said they would help but then they attacked with lawyers. I guess the list of violations was too long and they couldn't handle it face on!

Children are moved to NPS schools after suicide attempts, self injury, sexual abuse by teachers, extensive bullying by typical students, angry teachers who blame disabled for their disability - then they need to be moved to NPS schools. It is not because PAUSD does not have enough procedures to place them there. They are already there, and their purpose is to delay and prevent kids from getting to the right school.

All the new Board Member is saying is he wants to force kids back to the wrong schools because it will save money. It just looks that way. It ignores the fact that an NPS tuition costs less PAUSD pays for a full time aide and services for a child in the District, for example. This is not transparent because PAUSD costs are spread over many different departments and areas, while NPS schools show up as a single lump sum tuition amount.


5 people like this
Posted by PA Parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 14, 2019 at 4:37 pm

I forgot to add, the $150,000 per case plus witness preparation, and overhead from dozens of people in IEP meetings to intimidate and waste time with words that lack action then to write a fable. At least $200,000 and growing... NPS is a bargain.

PAUSD's actions hurt children and take away what voice they have because they are humiliated when they try to speak up for themselves and ignored and forced into situations that are not safe for them. The FBI described the Florida shooter's profile as a bullied, twice exeptional student who was not provided the appropriate support for years...sound familiar....


Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 15, 2019 at 8:09 pm

Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North

>> We should try to see how many Palo Altans we can get to, like “Dr. Novak” get a “PhD” from “Walden University”.

>> I think you need a major credit card.

Hey, "Dr. Novak" must be a persistent person; he certainly beat the odds. According to the Dept of Ed "College Scorecard", the for-profit Walden has a 6% graduation rate.

>> We can start a rumor that 8th graders with diploma mill PhDs do not have to do homework.

LOL. More useful than his "PhD" though is that Jim has a BA in Business Administration (accounting) and is a registered CPA. He can do arithmetic, which should be a breath of fresh air at PAUSD. Hopefully we won't have another $5.9M mistake any time soon.


Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 15, 2019 at 8:14 pm

Apologies for following up my own post; I intended to include this "scorecard" link for Walden: Web Link


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