Texas school districts have approved $6 million in severance deals to 24 superintendents in the past 15 months, according to records obtained by The Texas Monitor.
The departing superintendents submitted resignations, agreed to separations with the local school board or announced retirements, although documents show some were placed on paid administrative leave or left under suspect circumstances.
In several cases, the payouts were more than the administrator’s annual salary. In one instance, the wife of a superintendent, a teacher in the district, was also given six months of paid leave as part of her husband’s resignation agreement.
The pay includes the last year of salary, even when the administrator quits mid-year and stops working. They also receive unused vacation, leave days, pension pay and other benefits. Some are given interim titles to hold during periods that they are paid to work — after they have handed in their keys and access cards.
Twenty of the 24 districts have current bond payments, eight of them on projects approved in the last five years. And many of the districts involved have several hundred students, with payouts that take up a sizable percentage of the district’s assets.
Severance payments made to superintendents that exceed one year of salary and benefits come out of that district’s state funding.
The average tenure of a superintendent is about six years, dipping to around 4.5 years in urban districts. They live an itinerant life, similar to athletes, and can be hard to track down. The majority of the superintendents mentioned in this story could not be reached for comment.
The position is a high pressure, political engagement that is often thankless.
“It is overwhelming, the things superintendents have to deal with now,” said Les Farmer, who served 15 years as a superintendent in three small districts in the 80s and 90s. “And people think that you have all the authority. You really don’t. You have to deal with school board members, parents, government authorities. “
In smaller districts, Farmer said the work is harder.
“They don’t have the administrative staff that they do in larger districts,” he said.
But the severance payouts have a bigger impact in smaller districts. And in districts of all sizes, leaving is often more lucrative than staying, thanks to school trustees who are eager to shed a leader who is drawing flack or acting up.
“That’s the school board that agrees to such things, and they should not be doing that,” Farmer said. “It’s unwise to take taxpayer money to buy someone off. And from a superintendent’s standpoint, you take the job, they want you to move to the district, buy a house, join the local church. But if you upset a few people, well, you have to go.”
In Brookesmith Independent School District, with an enrollment of 124 students, parting Superintendent Guy Birdwell received $194,000 to leave in October 2016 — nearly 20 percent of the district’s assets. His annual salary at the time was $97,000.
In Johnson City, Superintendent David Shanley announced his retirement before finishing his $149,547 annual contract, which extended to 2020.
Shanley got $256,727 in severance while the district, with 659 students, wrapped last school year with a nearly $1 million budget deficit.
Other cases include:
- Delores Warnell was paid $291,591 after resigning in March 2017 from Bloomington ISD, enrollment 867. Her contract ran through 2020.
- Steve James stepped down in June 2017 with a year left on his contract. He received $187,803 from Higgins ISD, enrollment 122.
- Loretta Velez resigned from Spur ISD, enrollment 261, in February 2017 with over two years left on her contract. She was paid $175,228 in severance.
Districts are required to report payouts in a form to the state that includes the amount of salary paid to a parting superintendent in the final year of employment, to last day of work. The form also includes the salary and other funds owed to the superintendent.
In most cases, the departures were publicly noted as retirements or simple resignations, with no mention of the relatively lucrative severance agreements. In others, local media obtained a copy of the parting papers. However, even those aren’t always accurate.
Garland ISD Superintendent Bob Morrison left the district in January 2017 with four years left on his contract. His initial severance was reported as $448,115, according to an agreement provided to media by the Garland ISD.
Five months later, the figure became $686,225 — the total amount of salary owed, benefits, leave and vacation time, and other perks.
The payouts are often negotiated by lawyers who specialize in representing school administrators who run into ethical, legal or political trouble.
Two of the leading lawyers doing such work, Neal Adams of Adams, Lynch & Loftin in suburban Dallas, and Tony Resendez of Walsh Gallegos in San Antonio, did not respond to interview requests.
The parting agreements often include vows of silence from both sides, leaving the public wondering what exactly prompted a resignation or retirement.
Stetson Roane came into Seguin ISD in 2015 on the heels of a $173,000 payout for his predecessor, Irene Garza. Roane came along with his wife Denise, a teacher, and secured her a reported $106,000 deal.
With over two years left on his contract, he was out by March 2017 with a $256,066 payout, rolling in back pay, six months of severance and other entitlements. His wife was placed on paid administrative leave with the agreement that she would leave the district at the end of June.
Roane, though, secured something perhaps as valuable as his quarter-million dollar parachute. While no malfeasance of misbehavior is noted in the contract, Roane left the district shortly after a female colleague accused him of sexual impropriety.
Roane’s separation agreement included a clause in which the district agreed that “it will not report Roane or his resignation to the Texas Education Agency, State Board of Educator Certification, or any other state or local agency regarding the allegations investigated, and those underlying his consideration for possible sanctions before his resignation.”
It also promised that anyone filing a public records request for records regarding Roane would be resisted with an appeal to the state Attorney General.
“These boards sign agreements that they will not disclose information when someone leaves,” said DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. “These were signed when the superintendent was hired, and they have to abide by it. Some of the time, the information comes out, though.”
In the Seguin board, allegations of sexual harassment were levied against Roane, leaving the board with a conundrum.
“I don’t know what can be done in that case,” said Barbara Effenberger, a former teacher and Seguin ISD trustee since 2012. “You want to protect people, and sometime secrecy is the only way to do it. I think we just wanted to avoid getting into court costs.”
Seguin isn’t the only district making a vow of silence a part of severance agreements. David Velky left Rocksprings ISD with $176,000 and a promise from the district to “place all negative documentation related to Velky, in a separate, sealed file.” It will take a lawful order to unseal it, rather than a request from a district seeking to hire him.
The secrecy and the payouts are part of a system that has grown into big business. While corporations zealously guard their secrets and spend big to avoid legal costs that are even potentially bigger, school districts are doing the same thing.
“I got a severance like any CEO of a company,” said Leslie Vann, who left Comfort ISD with a year left on his contract. He started his education career in the 80s as a teacher, then served as a superintendent for three small districts before stepping away in July.
“Over the years, the job has evolved into someone very corporate,” said Vann, who now sells real estate. “That’s never been my nature.”
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].