Painful penalties haven’t kept school districts from making big payouts to departing executives

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Four Texas school districts last year lost nearly $400,000 in state funding as a penalty for their generosity to departing superintendents, according to records obtained by Texas Monitor. It’s part of a pattern that’s been going on for than two decades.

Many of the districts that had their state funding reduced are small, rural districts with fewer than 5,000 students, leaving them with budget holes in addition to superintendent vacancies.

The penalties have been on the books since 1995, when an omnibus education bill passed that requires the state to withhold funds from a district that pays a settlement worth more than the superintendent’s annual compensation.

Districts have for years paid large sums to departing superintendents, either to help convince an unpopular official to leave or because the superintendent simply wanted to retire or had a better job offer.

In almost every case, the severance payment had been agreed to as part of the contract when the official was hired.

In late 2016, the Brookesmith district (enrollment 143) between Waco and San Angelo was just moving out from under state conservatorship and nearing financial ruin with a $400,000 deficit. Yet when Superintendent Guy Birdwell left, the district accepted an $86,862 penalty for paying $194,000 to buy out his contract.  Current Superintendent Steve Mickelson did not return a call seeking comment.

Fort Worth public schools forfeited $291,000 in state funding to pay off Superintendent Walter Dansby in 2014. Dansby resigned after receiving negative reviews from the school board. In addition to the penalty, the district paid Dansby $900,000 in severance.

When the Brownwood district fired James Blincoe in 2014, the departing superintendent let the public know what the result could be.

“There’s no grounds to terminate me,” he told the ABC-TV affiliate in Abilene. His estimated $$300,000 severance was not included in that year’s budget, so it would have to be taken from “fund balances.”

It didn’t matter. The 1,000-student district gave up $127,135 in state funding to get rid of Blincoe. The district declined to comment.

When the Edgewood school board canned Superintendent Jose Cervantes that same year, his $400,000 contractual payout plus the state penalty of $151,683 came to $550,000 — equal to almost 70 percent of the budget for programs to help poor students in the district of 7,000. Edgewood did not respond to a request for comment.

District officials should know about the legal provision that reduces state funding in such cases, said DeEtta Culbertson, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

“It comes from the districts’ main funding,” Culbertson said. “One would hope they are aware of it. Certainty it is something included in the legal training of school board members.”

Since 2011, districts have given up $2.2 million in state funding in order to satisfy severance agreements with superintendents.

In 2015, the Abilene school district lost $131,642 in state funding for paying departing Superintendent Heath Burns $407,000 in severance after he allegedly failed on two occasions to report relationships between high school teachers and students. Burns later lost his license over a drug charge.

In almost every case, the penalties are incurred as a result of contracts that favor the superintendent, regardless of the reason they leave.

In Crowley, Superintendent Dan Powell was forced to step down last year due to health problems. The district, though, lost $90,706 in state funding as a result. A district spokesman did not return a call seeking comment.

In other cases, officials accused of malfeasance are removed with large penalties the districts can ill afford.  

The Tornillo school district in West Texas, where 95 percent of the students are considered economically disadvantaged, lost $138,131 in state funding for getting rid of Superintendent Paul Vranish in 2012. Vranish was escorted out of a board meeting at one point, a rare move regarding a district superintendent. He was placed on leave amid fraud allegations and later retired.

The 1995 measure was made more explicit in a 2001 bill authored by then-state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. The Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas Federation of Teachers supported the law in public testimony.  There was no opposition and no dissenting votes. Van de Putte did not respond to an email seeking comment.

View the list of districts that have forfeited state money here.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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