Shoes and Golden Parachutes

Making a quick stop at the grocery store one December evening, I glanced at the community Christmas tree in the entrance dressed in handmade paper ornaments, making a mental note to come by again when I wasn’t in such a rush. But the word, “shoes” scrawled on one slip of paper as a Christmas request from an eight-year old girl, caused me to stop in my tracks. And she wasn’t the only child asking for basic necessities:  a seven-year old boy wanted “clothes”… a nine-year old girl, also hoping for “shoes”… and dozens more. Nearly every scrap of paper was the same story. It was heartbreaking and drives home the reality of poverty, which is a fact of life for so many in our community.

Contrast that with overly-generous compensation packages for administrators upon parting service and extravagant early retirement benefits for both administrators and teachers. In the case of the latter, they may retire at 55 years old after completion of at least ten years (for administrators and 15 years for teachers) employment and taxpayers fund their insurance costs over the next decade, until they qualify for Medicare, which is expected to cost $328,000 per 2012 retiree a golden parachute in a town where parents can’t afford shoes for their children. This one lavish perk drives our structural deficit and annual necessity to cut in excess of $1 million dollars from the budget.

Public schools can't afford to fund Golden Parachutes

By all means, they should be free to retire early… at 55… if they so chose, as long as they  pay for their own insurance costs like everybody else.

This isn’t an isolated problem. I have it on good authority the backloading of unbelievable golden parachutes has reached new heights in Madison area schools and is catching on like wildfire across the state. It’s a ploy often used to offset what, on the surface appears to be “lower” administrative salaries.

Such contracts are unconscionable.

A few recent examples of school administrator golden parachutes from across the state include:

It’s not just a problem in Wisconsin. Other state legislatures have actually passed laws to ban public school superintendents and administrators from being paid for work they do not perform in an effort to ensure tax dollars go into the classrooms. Before the situation becomes any worse, we need similar legislation here.

Generally, these types of payouts end up being siphoned off the districts’ general fund. The domino effect is far-reaching:  from forcing some districts into short-term borrowing in order to meet payroll and pay the light bill, to aggravating their structural deficit and pushing them closer towards the brink of insolvency.

As much as I’m a firm believer in local control, the unfortunate reality is too many school boards are simply ill-equipped to ensure their administrators’ contracts are written to protect the school district and taxpayers’ best interests. Too often, boards lacking fiscal savvy are eager and willing to sweeten the pot in excess of their districts’ ability to pay. Consequently, I believe it is necessary for the state to consider addressing the issue in the interest of fiscal responsibility, accountability, transparency to our taxpayers… and the future of public education in Wisconsin.

Most people are unaware their school administrator contracts are subject to open records requests. They are public documents. What public school administrators are being paid – salary and benefits – is the public’s business.

All school board meetings where any administrator contracts are discussed should likewise be subject to open meetings laws. Allowing these discussions to take place behind closed doors is the root of the problem. Perhaps a requirement to actually publish administrators’ contracts in local newspaper legal notices and provide PDF versions on the school districts’ websites would also serve the public’s interests. Also, a one-year limitation on administrators’ contracts, without provisions for automatic renewal or the non-renew process, would benefit school districts through the avoidance of these types of costly early buyout deals.

Sunshine is the best disinfectant… especially for golden parachutes.

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