Education Week - May 17, 2017 - 16
Costs of Breaking Up With
District Honchos Are Steep
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 1
years left on her contract.
The "post-termination payments"
of $1.13 million-not including
compensation for unused days off
and pension-add up to more than
what Foose would have been paid
in salary if the district had kept her
on, according to The Baltimore Sun.
But in agreeing to the robust buyout, the district may have avoided
costly legal fees and more money
down the line: Foose has dropped
her discrimination lawsuit against
the school board.
Districts of all sizes have awarded
substantial packages to superintendents in exchange for their resignations-or retirements-before
their contracts end. While the circumstances vary, it's often irreconcilable differences between boards
and schools chiefs that lead to the
early exits. And those differences
often occur in the wake of elections
that bring new members to school
In 2016, months after four new
members joined the St. Paul, Minn.,
school board, a majority approved
a $787,500 departure package for
Valeria Silva, who had been superintendent since 2009. The deal
included a 15-month consulting arrangement for Silva, who had 2½
years left on her contract.
Florida's Hillsborough County
fired its superintendent, MaryEllen Elia, in 2015, while she was a
finalist for the AASA's National
Superintendent of the Year Award.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that
Elia's severance package surpassed
The Lee's Summit district in Missouri, with roughly 18,000 students,
agreed last year to pay its superintendent, David McGehee, an estimated $450,000 severance package
over two years. McGehee, who had
been on administrative leave before
he left the district, had just recently
signed a three-year contract with the
district worth about $1.2 million.
Reasons for Splitting Up
Other drivers of premature exits
are when superintendents fall short
of agreed-upon job-performance
benchmarks. Sometimes, the breakups come amid investigations and
allegations of wrongdoing, and
school boards-weighing potential
costs and liabilities down the road-
decide it's more cost-effective to pay
the money upfront and side-step
costlier financial exposure later on.
And sometimes things just don't
work out despite carefully vetting
superintendent candidates. That
can happen whether it's a school
board or a private corporation, said
Thomas Gentzel, the executive director and CEO of the National
School Boards Association.
"I think it's always good advice
for a school board-any board of directors or anybody who is hiring a
CEO-to be thinking about the potential implications if things don't
work out. What are the potential
cost implications?" he said.
But, Gentzel added, school
boards-which hire superintendents-are within their rights to
terminate those leaders. If boards
and superintendents are considering a breakup, the relationship has
probably deteriorated to the point
where it's detrimental to the district, he said.
Paying a High Price
Large payouts to superintendents
with multiple years left on their
contracts are still relatively unusual though, but are popping up
with more frequency, said Daniel A.
Domenech, the executive director of
the AASA, the School Superintendents Association.
"It's unusual because boards have
to consider the potential backlash
that they will get from the community when they pay out that kind
of money to a superintendent who
is entitled to it," Domenech said.
"That's the problem-that's why
there are contracts. And when those
contracts are terminated unilaterally by the board, then they have to
pay the price, and the price, unfortunately, is very high."
The length of superintendents'
contracts, how much they will be
paid, and reasons why they can be
fired are often covered in their employment agreements. In a 2016
survey on salaries, just 23.2 percent
of superintendents who responded
said their contracts contained severance or buyout clauses. When
boards fire superintendents for reasons not specified in contracts, they
often have to pay a lot of money.
"The reality is that there apparently is no cause," Domenech said.
"I am sure if they could have come
up with one, they would have."
In many instances, school boards
can't disclose much detail about
a superintendent's termination
without facing possible legal conse-
Fort Worth, school district, Tex.
2014; nearly $900,000
1 year left in contract
Howard County Public
2017; $1.65 million
3 years left in contract
Washoe County Schools, Nev.
2014, estimated $700,000
2 years left in contract
Hillsborough County Schools, Fla.,
2015; $1.1 million; 2 years left in contract
ber's election, they passed eight
resolutions that Foose said limited
While lauded for focusing on equity and other issues, Foose was not
universally popular. The Baltimore
Sun said some board members described her style as "secretive and
dictatorial," and in February, hundreds of parents signed an online
[I]t's always good advice for a school board ...
to be thinking about the potential implications
if things don't work out."
National School Boards Association
16 | EDUCATION WEEK | May 17, 2017 | www.edweek.org
Richmond Public Schools, Va.
2 years left in contract
St. Paul Public Schools, Minn.
2016; $787,500; 2 1/2 years left in contract
quences. But school boards can also
face legal consequences if superintendents challenge the grounds of
their dismissal. In 2014, the district
in Washoe County, Nev., had to rehire Superintendent Pedro Martinez
after a court found that the board
fired him illegally. In the end, the
board paid an estimated $700,000
to buy out the rest of his contract.
Foose, who had led the high-performing Howard County district
since 2012, signed a new, four-year
contract in February 2016. When
three new representatives joined
the school board after last Novem-
SOURCES: The Baltimore Sun,
Fort Worth Star-Telegram,
Minneapolis Star Tribune, Reno
Times-Dispatch, Tampa Bay
petition calling on her to resign.
A survey by the district's teachers' union, which was released in
March, found that only 10.8 percent
of teachers supported the superintendent, the paper reported.
The settlement agreement between Foose and the school board
restricts both sides from discussing
the matter, a lawyer for Foose told
Education Week. Howard County
school board President Cindy Vaillancourt did not respond to requests
In some states, policymakers
have taken steps to rein in expen-
California Gov. Jerry Brown
signed a law in 2015 to limit superintendents' severance at 12 months'
salary, from 18 months, and eliminate payouts to schools chiefs who
were fired for fraud and other financial wrongdoing if those actions
were confirmed through an independent audit. (Previous state law
allowed payouts of up to six months'
salary for those fired for fraud.)
In Texas, the state can reduce a
district's foundation funding if a
payout is more than a year's salary
and benefits agreed to in the superintendent's contract. But that has
not stopped districts from doing so.
According to the state's legislative
budget board, between 2011 and
2015, the state withheld $1.5 million in payments from districts that
exceeded the buyout cap.
New Jersey also limits the amount
tenured administrators, including
superintendents, assistant superintendents, and district business
managers, can receive in unused
sick time to $15,000. (Those under
old contracts were able to exceed
Despite the eye-popping numbers
that grab headlines, Domenech and
Gentzel say the vast majority of
school boards and superintendents
work in comity and part ways amicably.
The more-common scenario when
superintendents and boards split is
to pay the schools chief for accrued
sick time, vacation days, pensions,
and other stipulations in the contract, Domenech said. But even those
sums can reach $200,000.
How do school boards avoid getting to this breakup point that may
leave their districts on the hook for
hundreds of thousands or millions of
Even when new members sweep
onto a board after an election,
Domenech said, they should try to
work with the superintendent who
is already in place, and not just because dismissing and hiring a new
leader will cost money.
"The reality is that highly regarded
and highly functioning school systems are noted for their sustained
leadership-both on the part of the
board and on the part of the superintendent," he said.
Gentzel said boards need sharp
legal counsel, with expertise in
education law, on contract negotiations. But boards and superintendents should also spend significant time working together, to
build relationships and understand
and respect each others' roles and
"Teams don't just automatically
form," he said. "They require investment."
Research assistance provided by
Assistant Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky.