While Texas school districts struggle with what they contend is chronic underfunding from the state, many are still negotiating contracts that give cushy severance packages, some worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, to superintendents even when they leave without notice.
Since March, according to records obtained by Texas Monitor, 12 districts have paid $825,000 in severance money to departing superintendents. The Texas Monitor in March reported that Texas districts had paid $6 million in superintendent severances in the preceding 15 months.
The majority of payments in the last six months went to officials who failed to honor the terms of their contracts. Districts often agree, as part of the contract with the superintendent, not to disclose the terms of the departure.
One superintendent was paid as the state investigated an allegation of inappropriate behavior with a student.
At Coleman ISD, a West Texas district in which over half the student body is low-income and teachers are paid around $40,000 per year, departing Superintendent Alex McCambridge received $80,000 and a recommendation letter after he announced in February he was resigning with over two years left on his contract. He was reported to have had conflicts with the school board.
At Sam Houston ISD in San Antonio, Gail Siller retired in June with two-and-a-half years left on her contract. The district paid her $168,868, including the value of the Honda SUV she has driven as part of her contract since 2012.
In Yantis ISD, enrollment 203, Superintendent Jerry Brem had been in that job for seven months and was under investigation for allegations that he had “committed an unlawful act with a student or minor.” Despite that fact, district officials in December signed an agreement to keep him on the school district payroll another six months, for $48,183. He resigned, but the resignation was not effective until June 30, during which time he stayed on as a “special assistant” to the interim superintendent. Under the resignation agreement, Brem could have taken another job. But with paychecks guaranteed, he waited until June 28 to surrender his license.
Paying an official during a state investigation is a local decision, said DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.
“Sometimes they are put on leave with pay and sometimes without,” Culbertson said. “Even when someone is arrested, it’s up to the board.”
Tracey Helfferich, acting superintendent at Yantis ISD, did not respond to an email seeking comment. Former Yantis school board president James VanWinkle, who signed off on Brem’s agreement, could not be reached.
Several of the well-compensated administrators who left have landed new jobs.
Jose Moreno left La Vernia ISD amid a sexual assault scandal among students that resulted in several lawsuits against the district for failing to act. Moreno was hired at Robstown ISD in August for $165,000 per year, five percent more than he made at La Vernia.
Emilio Castro Jr. resigned from Edgewood ISD in March amid allegations that he harassed an employee. Less than a month after he received his severance of $94,500, including car and cell phone allowance, Castro reported on his LinkedIn page that he was a consultant for Texans Can Academies, which runs several charter schools around the state. Texans Can declined to confirm his employment. Castro could not be reached for comment.
School board members are not specifically trained in dealing with superintendent relations, but instead are coached on teamwork with board colleagues, reading and understanding student achievement reports and “goal setting,” said Mark Keahey, assistant director of the Region 10 Education Service Center, one of 20 in the state.
The centers are state-created entities that provide information and training to educators and administrators. The centers teach school trustees to critique superintendents on the basis of agreed-upon goals.
Keahey said the Texas Association of School Boards, or TASB, which represents board members across the state, also provides training on superintendent relations.
School board members are trained in how to evaluate a superintendent, said Joy Baskin, director of legal services for TASB. But not in hiring or firing, both of which require board approval.
“Every school board member is required to get an orientation before they evaluate a superintendent,” Baskin said. “But that training is on the evaluation, not the contract.”
There is also no training on terminations.
“Most of the time that kind of training focuses on teachers leaving,” she said.
Texas Monitor in March reported that Texas districts paid $6 million in superintendent severances in the preceding 15 months.
Between 2013 and 2017, school districts paid out approximately $18.3 million in severance payments to 141 superintendents, according to a legislative report issued in August. Between 2011 and 2015, those payments totaled $15.8 million to 124 superintendents.
“It’s a deal where these contracts are made through an extensive process, and in some cases it is in the interest of both the superintendent and the district [for the contract] to be broken, so there needs to be a way out,” said Joe Smith, former superintendent at Hudson ISD and now executive director of the education news website Texasisd.com.
While acknowledging that the severance payments are sometimes sizeable, Smith said, “It’s a substantial risk to a superintendent to take a new job, move the family, and if it doesn’t pan out, well, you’re stuck.”
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.
School district officials have called the state’s level of education allocation a “war on public education financing.” Voters were asked this spring to approve a record number of bond measures that districts contend are needed to shore up buildings, increase security and build improved sports facilities.
Voters in 49 districts cast ballots on 60 bond measures in May; 41 were approved and 19 were defeated according to data compiled by the state comptroller’s office.
Funding for K-12 education is among the top items to be tackled in the upcoming legislative session.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].