State legislators have begun work on long overdue legislation to limit the damage to local taxpayers when a school board and its superintendent part ways.
In Fall 2010, after renewing his contract only a few months earlier, the Gettysburg Area School Board decided it no longer found Supt. Bill Hall acceptable. So, with three and-a-half years left on his contract, they fired him.
Well, not fired – exactly.
“Bill Hall is on administrative leave for personal reasons,” board President Patt Symmes said the day after the Sept. 20, 2010 school board meeting, “and that’s all I can say.”
Placing Hall on “administrative leave” was done in secret, during an executive session following the regular meeting, although it later turned out even that chronology was carefully choreographed to limit or delay public inquiry.
After nearly six months of negotiations cloaked in legal protections for “personnel matters,” a settlement was reached. Hall was paid about four years salary (including forgiveness of the remaining mortgage on a home he had purchased from the district) and other remunerations. Total value, more than a half-million dollars – plus the money paid to the attorney who negotiated the settlement.
According to state Auditor General Jack Wagner, Hall was one of several public school superintendents to benefit from secrecy-shrouded golden parachutes as they and their school boards parted ways before their contracts officially expired. For instance, a school board paid its superintendent more than $150,000 to go away, and the following year paid his successor more than $200,000 to quit superintending and become a consultant for the district.
That situation – in which contracts leave to future school boards what to pay a superintendent to go away – may be ended with a bill sponsored by Dauphin County Republican Sen. Jeff Piccola.
The Senate Education Committee, of which Piccola is chairman, has unanimously approved a bill that would limit the cost of public school superintendent buyouts, and require any severance packages be detailed in the superintendents’ contracts. In addition, the contracts would be linked to student performance.
The bill goes too far – and not far enough.
Too far: There are numerous reasons cited for less than stellar student achievement, and many of those reasons are not within the capabilities of the superintendent to fix. Address, yes. Draw public attention, certainly. Fix? Not necessarily, although therein lies discussion for another column.
Not far enough: The notion of “personnel matters” must be modified as it relates to termination of upper-level public officials – once a decision has been made to terminate the employment relationship.
In the Gettysburg Area School District case, the board allegedly was enjoined from revealing why Hall was being terminated – or even that he was being terminated. Rumors were rampant, most of them, it turned out, false.
The school board was taking an action in the public’s name, but the public was prohibited to know anything more than he was on “administrative leave for personal reasons.”
A similar situation occurred in Hanover School District when then-Supt. Michele Bortner was placed on “special assignment” for five months before being officially terminated in May 2003. Those who paid her salary, and ultimately her buyout, were not permitted even to know whether the “special assignment” involved work for the district.
As a journalist, I believe in public accountability – and not the kind that waits until the next election, after the damage is done and the miscreant profited therefrom. On the other hand, I do not believe in rumor-based conviction.
But once a school superintendent has been asked, as was Hall, not only to not show up for work but to have no communication with school staff, the public has a right to know why its representatives took that action.
If a superintended quits for “personal reasons,” he or she retains the right to secrecy. If the official is fired, the public, in whose name the decision is made, has a right to know why.
Add that to your bill, Mr. Piccola. The voters will thank you.
Photo by Runs With Scissors
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