Cairo Association of Teachers - Newsletter

CAT Tracks for November 25, 2008

Couple of comments about the story below:

From San Bernardino, CA's The Sun...

Severance pay part of business, Rialto school officials say

Josh Dulaney, Staff Writer

RIALTO - A school official last week crystallized the roiling quarrel over outgoing Superintendent Edna Davis-Herring's $300,000 severance package. "This is part of the business of education," Walter Hawkins said after a Nov. 17 board meeting.

A day after Hawkins and Board President Dan Mays lost their Nov. 4 re-election bids in the Rialto Unified School District, the board in a 3-2 vote received Davis-Herring's resignation and gave her 18 months' worth of salary, plus health benefits and an estimated 22 unused vacation days.

Board members endured public speakers at last week's meeting who deemed the decision, among other things, "ridiculous" and "underhanded."

"How can you ethically give the superintendent $300,000 because she decided to resign?" Irene Martinez said in the front of the board room packed with more than 50 people. "No one asked her to leave."

Mays and Hawkins, who were joined by Joanne Gilbert in voting for the severance, remain staunch in their defense of the decision, even as the board faces another round of criticism when it meets tonight to discuss alleged violations of the state's public meetings law.

"If we didn't do something with this, when the next superintendent comes in, you're going to have a hard time recruiting one because we didn't take this action," Mays said.

Mays said as a representative of the board, it took a five-minute private discussion with Davis-Herring to work out the terms of the severance. Then he presented it to his colleagues for ratification on Nov. 5.

Still, some questioned the decision because the superintendent's contract states that if she voluntarily terminates the agreement, the district would only be liable for her salary for services rendered.

"That's just legal language," Mays said.

Others wonder how a district that claims to be strapped for cash can then pay the severance on top of having to hire another superintendent.

"There's a problem on the face of it because of the budget," said Bill Hedrick, president of the Rialto Education Association teachers union. "It's not about money, it's about priorities. Stuffing money into Edna's purse - it's not right."

But Hawkins pointed to other districts for examples of similar packages given to outgoing superintendents.

Officials in Victor Valley are negotiating the severance pay for recently fired Superintendent Julian Weaver, but acting Superintendent Herb Calderon said the district is looking at a minimum of $230,000, plus benefits.

Hawkins said school districts must consider that superintendents come and go, and rather than a golden parachute, such severance packages serve as protection for both the superintendent and the district.

One education veteran agreed.

Ron Bennett, president of School Services of California - an education consultant group for schools throughout the state - said severance agreements keep superintendents and districts from getting sued.

"You don't want unlimited liability either way," Bennett said. "While it sounds like a lot of money, it isn't much compared to litigating severance packages."

Bennett, a former deputy school superintendent for more than 10 years, said it is common for boards to award severances to superintendents who have resigned.

The public never really knows the full details of a superintendent's resignation, he said. A severance package, even for resigning superintendents, is a way for districts to part ways without implying fault, and it leaves as little damage as possible, he said.

He said resignation is often the best way to terminate a contract, because if a board handles the situation roughly, the next superintendent's demands will be rigorous. And Bennett has seen many superintendent resignations on the heels of a board election.

"Yes, I have seen that before," he said. "The handwriting is on the wall. Sometimes they (incoming board members) campaign on that (ousting superintendents). As a result, the superintendent may well say I want to characterize (leaving) in a way to make room for the new board. Around the state, there are probably several issues like that. We'll never know."

The alternative might be that the board honors the superintendent's contract, and the district suffers contention between newly elected officials and the remaining superintendent, he said.

On the other hand, the board could allow the superintendent to resign, not pay her and wait for a lawsuit, he said.

Bennett agreed with Mays that a nasty severance fight might scare off future superintendents, who typically only stay in a district for a couple of years. Experienced superintendents have more options, while other superintendents bounce from district to district as they move up the ladder, he said.

"If you get three to five years out of a superintendent, you've beat the averages for sure," Bennett said.

Mays said because of the short stays in districts, superintendents seek agreements that protect the financial well-being of their families.

"Do you think a rational person would want to move here based on the assumption they're serving at will to the board, and at their whim they could be let go and receive no compensation for it?" he said.

As to whether or not the district can afford to pay out a severance on top of the next superintendent's salary, Mays deferred.

"That's a question for the incoming board," Mays said. "I have zero influence on that."



A comparison of superintendent severance packages in local school districts:

Victor Valley Unified High School District
Fired in 2008
In negotiations, but estimated severance: $230,000

Fontana Unified School District
Retired in 2006
Severance: $200,000

Rialto Unified School District
Resigned in 2008
Severance: $300,000