Education officials acknowledge that pricey contract buyouts, provisions take a toll on voters

A Portland school board member wants the city's school district to adopt strict limits on the perks and terms that can be part of employment contracts for top district administrators.

Board member Julia Brim-

Edwards' proposal comes as city and county leaders talk about providing new local taxes to Portland's school district. They're also encouraging the district to put more of its money into classrooms.

The proposal comes as school leaders continue to cut district spending but remain plagued by criticism of some of their past spending decisions Ñ including a special consulting contract and contract 'buyouts' for top administrators that have cost the district almost $800,000 in the last three years.

'I think the past examples certainly highlight the need for a policy,' Brim-Edwards said. 'I think it's outrageous that $500,000 was spent on contract buyouts. Being a board member who can do something about it, I'd like to do something about it.'

Brim-Edwards was planning to present a draft form of her proposal to the school board Monday night. It would prohibit guaranteed contracts for administrators who don't have an educational administrator's certificate, which is similar to a teaching certificate.

The proposal also would prohibit a district administrator with a certificate from getting contract guarantees that go beyond what's required in state law.

The proposal is a response to the controversial contracts or contract buyouts that the school board has given top administrators during the last couple of years.

Those are:

• The $250,000 paid to former Deputy Superintendent Susan Dyer to leave the district in February 2001.

When former Superintendent Ben Canada hired her in May 2000 as an assistant superintendent, he gave her Ñ apparently without the school board's knowledge Ñ what in essence was a three-year guaranteed contract at a salary of $120,000 a year.

When Dyer was asked to resign seven months after she started Ñ principals and district employees complained publicly and privately about what they considered domineering management style Ñ the school board gave her a severance package valued at more than $250,000 to leave. It included 17 months' salary and benefits and paying for $10,000 in educational expenses. The district also promised to pay any of her moving expenses up to $15,000 and gave her up to $5,000 to pay her attorney for negotiating the severance agreement.

• The more than $250,000 given to Canada when the school board asked him to resign in May 2001.

Canada and the board agreed in writing that it was in their 'mutual best interests for their employment relationship to end,' which led to the board agreeing to pay him his $13,700 monthly salary and 15 months of benefits after his last day of work for the district. The board also agreed to pay him another $40,000 for an annuity and bonus pay allowed under his contract.

• The more than $282,000 paid to then-human resources consultant Steve Goldschmidt for consulting work from December 1999 through April 2001. He worked full time during four of the 17 months.

Goldschmidt, brother of former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, billed at the rate of $1,250 per day Ñ and made more during that period than any district employee, including Canada.

In May 2001, shortly before Canada resigned, Goldschmidt was hired as the district's full-time human resources director at a salary of $132,000 per year and was promised a potential annual bonus of $20,000. His contract gave him a leased car for 24 months, provided a $2,000 monthly housing allowance for the first six months and promised to pay the closing costs for the sale of his Eugene home and the purchase of a home in Portland. The contract also promised to pay him 18 months' salary after he was terminated, unless the termination was for 'moral turpitude or gross neglect of duty.'

Goldschmidt did not return a call for comment by press time.

Brim-Edwards says such decisions continue to rankle people, even as district leaders cut tens of millions of dollars from the district's budget Ñ including reduction of the district's central office staff by more than 60 percent, and more than 800 people, since 1990.

'When you're on a soccer field or in a grocery store, these are things that people raise,' she said.

Dyer buyout controversial

'It's probably not a big dollar issue relative to a $350 million (annual) budget,' said Gregg Kantor, a NW Natural executive who spoke about school district accountability at a City Club luncheon Friday. 'But it's the appearance. Those small signature events really weigh heavily on people's perceptions of what's going on.'

Almost everyone remembers the Dyer buyout, for instance.

School board members said the unusual contract that Canada gave Dyer provided them little choice other than to give her such a severance.

Still, on that decision, the public 'will never forgive us,' said school board Chairwoman Karla Wenzel, who didn't vote on the settlement because she was out of town at the time. 'It will be with voters for 15 years. It will be on the tip of everybody's tongue for 15 years.'

Brim-Edwards said she's open to amendments and changes in her draft proposal. But she said she will push for a policy that sets guidelines for what's allowable when school district leaders negotiate contracts with top administrators.

Contract buyouts, for instance, should not be allowed, she said.

'We shouldn't be in the business of providing 'golden parachutes,' ' she said. 'I don't believe in pay for no work, and I don't believe most of the people in this city believe that.'

And the benefits in contracts should be limited to the standard benefits that most district employees get.

'It's not an appropriate use of taxpayers' money to pay for housing allowances or closing costs,' Brim-Edwards said.

For example, she said, she recently voted against the employment contract of Deputy Superintendent Patricia Pickles because it contained a housing allowance and because she wanted to prompt a larger discussion about contracts.

Housing allowance called unusual

Special perks in contracts are not unusual for superintendents, especially in large urban districts.

But they are less common for other administrators.

Ron Wilson, human resources director for the Oregon School Boards Association, said a contract such as Dyer's 'would be unusual' in most Oregon school districts.

'It would certainly be a provision that we would not recommend,' he said.

Asked about paying closing costs and giving housing allowances, he said: 'Those perks are unusual. Generally, we do not see things like that in administrative contracts.'

Wenzel said that even without specific guidelines on employment contracts, the school board has given greater scrutiny to employment contracts during the last year or so.

But school board policy should not be too restrictive and hamper a superintendent's ability to hire good employees for the district, she said.

Whether there should be stated guidelines like Brim-Edwards is proposing, 'I want to wait and see,' Wenzel said. 'There are pros and cons.'

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