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Busting School Board Buyouts

Legislation before the Pennsylvania Senate could heavily impact the way school districts do business with their superintendents.

Senate Bill 1296, sponsored by Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin), was approved unanimously this week by the Senate Education Committee. The bill would limit the value of buyouts for public school superintendents as well as cap superintendent contracts at 3 to 5 years.

In addition, the measure would call for school boards to provide a sort of superintendent pre-nuptial agreement, requiring them to detail any sort of buyout or severance provisions when the contract is signed. The bill also prevents school boards from negotiating buyouts or severance provisions during the length of the contract.

Another provision calls for superintendents to be evaluated based on objective performance standards. Senator Piccola believes this will hold superintendents to a higher standard.

"Everybody that negotiates a contract for employ in the private sector does just that," Piccola said. "They say here's the job you have to do, here's what we expect of you, you do it, and you continue on in employment. If you don't do it, well, we'll have to get rid of you."

The introduction of this bill followed a string of large buyouts given to superintendents over the past decade. Most notably was the $905,000 settlement with Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman last year. In 2004 there was the $420,000 buyout of Mt. Lebanon Superintendent Marge Sable. In both cases, the superintendents were let go with multiple years left on their contracts.

Yet there are those who see this bill as an unnecessary restriction on how school boards do business. Josephine Posti, who has been on the Mt. Lebanon School Board since 2005 and has been its President since 2010, says while buyouts may sound distasteful, they act as a safety net for potential candidates.

"Should that position not work out, should you be working with a new makeup of school board members in a year or so, you need to make sure that your interests are protected," Posti said.

According to Posti, these restrictions will limit the potential candidates school districts can attract, and will hurt a school district's chances of landing a top-tier superintendent.

Senator Piccola disagrees. He believes since most superintendents in Pennsylvania make six figure salaries, top talent will still be attracted to the keystone state.

"I have no idea how that would be the case because you want the highest possible talent and the people that are going to have that talent," Piccola said. "That argument doesn't even make any logical sense."

Posti believes school boards should be free to make their own decisions.

"The 500 school districts within the commonwealth are each very different," Posti said. "And any time there is legislation that limits local control for any of those 500 school districts, that's something I'm very concerned about."

The full Senate is expected to vote on the bill in April.