When the Mount Vernon school board agreed to pay then-Superintendent Gregg Weiss a $200,000 severance package last year, even that wasn’t the whole cost to the East Texas district.
For paying off a superintendent who was only four months into a three-year contract, the district forfeited $35,560 in state education funding – making Mount Vernon the latest in a long line of Texas districts to knowingly take that kind of hit in order to ditch their superintendent.
If either of two bills now under consideration by the Texas Legislature becomes law, school boards will no longer be able to hand departing superintendents such nice going-away presents. Weiss, for instance, would have gotten no more than $164,440, or one year’s salary. And school boards would no longer have the option to give up some state funding in order to get rid of superintendents who have fallen out of favor.
Last week, lawmakers on the House Committee on Public Education heard testimony on one of two bills that have been proposed to limit superintendent severance agreements to one year’s salary.
In presenting HB 880, freshman state Rep. Gina Calanni, D-Katy, said school districts paid out $18.3 million in severances between 2013 and 2018. She called it a “mismanagement of funding.”
She noted the case of Guy Birdwell, the superintendent at Brookesmith school district, enrollment 143, who received a $194,000 severance, equal to almost 20 percent of the district’s annual budget.
Calanni said the severances often cost smaller, less wealthy districts crucial funding and it’s done “either to convince an unpopular superintendent to leave or because the superintendent simply wanted to leave for a better job offer.”
Neal Smith, whose Grapevine law firm has negotiated severance and termination agreements for superintendents for 32 years, told committee members that Calanni’s bill “effectively creates a one-year contract for superintendents despite the [state statute] that allows for five years.
“The impact will limit hiring pools specifically and especially in schools districts that are struggling academically and financially,” he said.
The measure would only apply to public schools.
Currently, districts that pay a departing superintendent more in severance than is called for in the official’s contract have their state funding reduced through Texas’ main school funding program. Since 2011, districts have given up $2.2 million in state funding in order to satisfy severance agreements with superintendents.
Contracts between school districts and superintendents are usually carried on behind closed doors, without giving the public the reason for the termination. Those contracts often include non-disclosure clauses that prohibit board members and the superintendent from discussing the reasons for the departure.
The agreement in Mount Vernon was struck a year after Weiss reported two coaches to the state for alleged misuse of a bank account connected to the girl’s basketball team. His separation agreement stated no reason for his early departure. He started at the district in 2016; in January 2018 his contract was extended to 2021.
As part of his separation agreement, Weiss received a letter of recommendation signed by the school board that referred to the district’s achievements under his tenure, including football, basketball and volleyball championships. (See documents here.)
Mount Vernon finance manager Barbara Shurbet did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The State Executive Committee of the University Interscholastic League, which oversees scholastic sports programs in the state, suspended one coach and put another on probation in connection with the probe into use of the basketball team accounts.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].