Bills take aim at sweet deals for departing school officials

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superintendent payouts

While Texas lawmakers are trying to find more money for public schools, a couple of legislators have filed bills to slash one particular kind of school spending: the booming business of superintendent severance packages.

The most pointed measure, HB 769, authored by state Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place), seeks to prevent districts from making cushy payouts to top officials who resign rather than getting fired.

Davis’ bill doesn’t address another part of the problem: how to force school boards to reveal the terms of superintendent contracts, whether the official gets fired, resigns early, or stays with the job for the full contract period.

Another measure, HB 880, being pitched by freshman state Rep. Gina Calanni (D-Katy) is a broader, simpler proposed solution similar to California’s policy: No superintendent severance agreement may be worth more than one year of his or her final salary figure.

Neither measure has much chance of passing. Neither Davis nor Calanni would discuss their bills, nor would the Texas Association of School Administrators, which lobbies on behalf of superintendents.

A report from The Texas Monitor and Real Clear Investigations last year found that Texas school districts have fired or disciplined 45 public school superintendents since 2012 for violations that include embezzlement and sexual misconduct, usually paying a contractually agreed-upon severance as part of the process.

In other cases, the superintendent and the board simply cannot get along — not uncommon in job situations but in this case with a much nicer severance check for the employee.

Between 2013 and 2017, according to a state study, Texas school districts paid $18 million in superintendent severance payments, despite a law already on the books that, in some cases, reduced the districts’ state funding as a result.

School districts nationwide have battled with the severance issue. In Maryland, a school district handed over $1.65 million to a departing superintendent in 2017. In Hillsborough County, Fla., in 2015, a superintendent received $878,318 when she was fired with two years remaining on her contract.

In Texas, Garland Superintendent Bobby Morrison was paid $302,532 in 2017 when he quit with four years left on his contract.

It was a widely reported rash of outsize severances that prompted the passage of California’s the law in 2015 that limits such payments. In Pennsylvania, a $905,000 severance payment to buy out the last two years of a fired superintendent’s contract was the motivation behind a failed measure to limit buyouts there.

State Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) said that while such measures are a first step, a more transparent process for supervising and firing superintendents is needed.

When Superintendent Keith Moore was fired by the Crosby school board in Cain’s district last year for reasons the board would not divulge, he received a $212,657 severance.  Cain was frustrated by the board’s refusal to provide information to voters who looked into the episode.

“I cannot see how schools can keep these things secret,” Cain said.  “If we want to provide these severance payments, there has to be transparency.”

In most of the 45 instances of school superintendents being disciplined by the TEA since 2012, details of the cases were kept secret. Some were allowed to retire or step down without disclosing the sanctions.

The Monitor investigation last year found several instances in which superintendents “retired” or stepped down, then months later had their professional licenses yanked by the state or were otherwise disciplined.

Texas school districts that pay departing superintendents more in severance than is set out in their contracts incur a penalty: The districts’ money from Texas’ main school funding program is reduced. The study by the state Legislative Budget Board issued last summer that totted up the $18 million in severance payments also found that the overly generous districts lost $1.7 million in state education funding as a result.

“Most of the time, these superintendents are given severance to avoid a lawsuit,” said Cathy Mincberg, a former Houston school board member and current president of the Center for Reform of School Systems. She said malfeasance is rare but even when it occurs, it’s so hard to prove that some districts would rather pay the superintendent handsomely to walk away than risk a lawsuit.

She noted the recent flap over a $750,000 severance — two years’ pay — given to Katy Superintendent Lance Hindt, who stepped down after a series of decades-old allegations of physical abuse turned many local residents against him.

Mincberg said it “would take a few Katys down the line” to generate enthusiasm for limiting severance payments.

She also considers that such payment limits might be short-sighted.

“You have to remember that there are also circumstances where [as part of an agreement] a school district can pay less than a year’s severance,” she said. “And every superintendent who leaves is going to ask for that year.”

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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