Stanley Fields resigned after just a year as superintendent of a suburban Cook County school district where he was put on leave, faced with firing and ultimately required to apologize to the community. Still, he walked away with a $100,000 severance payment.
He also had prematurely left his prior job, at a Lake County high school district, cashing out $30,426 in unused vacation. The school board waived a $60,000 breach-of-contract payment from Fields, now superintendent in another Chicago-area school district.
Fields' experience illustrates a statewide phenomenon that is costing the public millions in buyout deals worked out in secret by school boards, a Tribune investigation found.
The newspaper's review of more than 100 superintendent contracts, financial records and severance agreements over a decade revealed that boards have handed out six-figure separation checks; district-paid health care; cash or retirement credit for hundreds of sick days; and, in one case, a Mercedes — all to be rid of superintendents.
The severance packages are fueled by high superintendent and board turnover, fear of lawsuits, and board policies and state laws that boost buyouts — such as sick days that can accrue to limits uncommon in the private sector, experts said. In many cases, the money funding a buyout could pay one or more annual teacher salaries.
The deals raise questions in an era of accountability and fiscal woes, said Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, an advocacy group.
If a superintendent leaves by choice, "I really question why any of these compensation packages should be included," she said.
If a superintendent is pushed out over performance, she added, "Then I think you have to say, 'What is fair for the superintendent? What is fair for children? What is fair for the taxpayers?'
"In these tough economic times, we've got to make common-sense, fair decisions. It probably is not going to look like it has in the past. We cannot mirror Wall Street. These are publicly paid individuals."
In Illinois, board members have mixed views.
"Boards have not been held responsible because they do not care about taxpayers, period. … They do not care about how much money they spend," said Kenneth Williams, board president in Thornton Township High School District 205, which recently approved a $350,000-plus severance package for J. Kamala Buckner, a veteran superintendent. Williams tried unsuccessfully to rescind the package in May.
"After 38 years of committed service and 12 years as superintendent … I thought it was appropriate," Buckner said.
Chris Welch, president of the Proviso 209 board, who signed off on Fields' $100,000 severance, believes boards are well-meaning and take seriously the hiring of district leaders. An attorney, Welch said severance deals can be less costly than legal battles if superintendents contest or sue.
"The termination of a superintendent is not cheap," he said. "At some point, it's wise for boards to sit down to talk about all options, and that includes buyouts or resignation agreements."
After all, experts said, boards enter legally binding contracts with superintendents and must honor their commitments.
Short but sweet
The Tribune found boards doling out hefty payouts even for short-time superintendents.
Only about four months into a three-year contract, Dick Best resigned as superintendent effective in 2004 from DuPage's Addison District 4, records show. Still, he got a full year's salary of $150,000 and a parting payment of $50,000. Best is now an assistant superintendent in South Holland.
In Western Springs, Seth Harkins resigned in 2002 as superintendent of District 101 after one year of his three-year contract. The board paid $126,304 to the state so he could retire early and collect his full pension. He's now a professor.
Some buyout deals also include stellar recommendations that help superintendents get new jobs.
The Dolton District 149 board placed its superintendent, Doris Hope-Jackson, on remediation and administrative leave before she left the job in 2003. She was described in an evaluation as "very harsh" toward parents, taxpayers, board members and staff, among other criticisms.
Yet, the board's recommendation letter said that Hope-Jackson served the district "with pride and sophistication" and that "her leadership style was based upon a foundation of cooperation with the school community."
Hope-Jackson sued and got a six-figure settlement, including title to a Mercedes-Benz, records show. She moved to Calumet School District 132, where she departed when the board said it needed new leadership, and then to Michigan, where an Ypsilanti school board forced her out last year. She filed a lawsuit there, which is pending.
The Addison board, after about four months, recommended Best as someone who brought "a great deal of energy and expertise to his role." And Burr Ridge-based District 181 praised James Tenbusch's "operational and strategic guidance." Tenbusch resigned as superintendent after a year in District 181, leaving in 2008 with a $170,000 severance payment, plus $26,154 in unused vacation pay and up to $10,000 for expenses to find a new job.
The superintendent severance agreements usually are discussed behind closed doors, allowed under open-meeting laws. Also, they often demand confidentiality by all parties, unless disclosure is required by a subpoena or law. The Tribune obtained severance information under the state's Freedom of Information Act. Several districts refused to provide recommendation letters, among other records. The Illinois attorney general's office is reviewing whether those documents should be made public.
Overall, some superintendents were forced out or deemed not a good fit. Others chose to retire or leave for another job. Rarely did boards demand superintendents pay penalties for leaving early.
One exception is Jean-Claude Brizard, new CEO of Chicago Public Schools, who left Rochester, N.Y., schools before his contract ended. The Rochester board prohibited him from cashing in unused sick and vacation days, records show. In Chicago, Brizard's contract, released last month, includes a penalty that requires him to repay $30,000 in relocation-related expenses if he leaves before June 30, 2012.
School administration experts say superintendent terminations have been on the rise in the wake of added education mandates, financial pressures and school board instability.
"It is a very difficult job, and it has been made more difficult over the last five or eight years as the economic circumstances of the state and districts have changed dramatically," said Harkins, now a National-Louis University assistant professor. "I think it's very hard for many administrators to maintain coalitions that are necessary for policy work."
As to his stint in Western Springs, Harkins said, "We simply had an agreement to part ways."
Fields, now superintendent of South Berwyn School District 100, said that when he was in Mundelein in Lake County, "It was a difficult financial time. … The board and the community were under the understanding that they had significant money in the bank when really they did not. Regardless of who delivers that message, it's a hard one."
He described his separation from Mundelein as amicable but declined to discuss his Proviso departure. In his resignation letter, in which he apologized to the community, Fields referenced a "lack of communication" as well as a "deterioration of trust" with the board, records show.
In Best's case, he said, "It was an issue between the school district, the board and the superintendent, so we together made the decision that it wasn't the right fit."
The Tribune found that school boards rarely fire superintendents, opting instead to give them severance deals.
After seven months in Zion-Benton Township High School District 126, Peter Alvino was advised that the school board "believes sufficient cause exists to justify his termination" relating to "serious inadequacies of performance" and other allegations, records show.
He was suspended in February 2001, but the board ultimately allowed Alvino to resign and continue to get his $130,000 salary until June of that year. Alvino moved to California, where, in one district, he was reassigned from a principal job to a teaching job before resigning, records show. He's now working on an online law degree.
Alvino said that after a disagreement with the school board president, "things went south." He differed with the board's version of his performance.
School boards can change dramatically in a short period, said Hank Gmitro, a former DuPage superintendent who is now president of the search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates.
"A board can change over completely in an election cycle," he said. "You can have a situation where one board hires a superintendent … and in April, that board changes and says, 'We don't want that person the last board hired.'"
Michael Smith attributed board turnover to his 2007 resignation as superintendent from McHenry County's Cary District 26.
"It was just a situation where professionally the board that hired me was no longer there, and there was a different direction set than the direction (for which) I was hired," he said.
Following Smith's resignation, the district changed the locks on his office door but allowed him to keep his superintendent title and spend nine months, at his $142,000 salary, researching the impact of federal No Child Left Behind reforms. He was required to file a report on that research. Meanwhile, the board hired a $600-a-day acting superintendent, records show. Smith also was given $75,000 as part of his resignation agreement. He is now a superintendent downstate.
Using available state data, the Tribune tracked the number of superintendents in Illinois school districts from 2000 to 2010, finding nearly half had gone through three or more superintendents.
That turnover not only fuels buyout deals but can take a toll on issues ranging from policy to student achievement.
"If you have musical chairs and you turn over superintendents every two to three years, it's not helping your district … (or) your students," said Thomas Jacobson, CEO of the McPherson and Jacobson search firm.
Changeover also means some superintendents get multiple severance payouts.
Rosemary Hendricks got a $132,000 settlement in 2009 after filing a lawsuit against Hoover-Schrum District 157, where she had served as superintendent about a year. Earlier, she had gotten a $75,000 settlement in Bellwood District 88, where she had a short stint as superintendent, records show. She is back as Bellwood superintendent.
Richard Drury left his Wisconsin superintendent contract prematurely in 2007 and retired. He got almost $40,000 in vacation and sick payouts, five years of district-paid health insurance and $70,515 to cover insurance premiums after that. He then became Wheaton's District 200 superintendent, resigning effective March 2010 after "differences arose" with the board, records show. He was given $60,000 as part of a resignation agreement and paid out the remainder of his $208,000 salary.
And downstate, the Peoria 150 school board spent $228,134 in 2004-05 on the final year of salary, unused vacation days and health insurance for Superintendent Kay Royster, even though she had been placed on leave during that time. She moved to a Missouri district, where after less than two years, the board bought out her contract in 2008 for $119,243 and paid her $25,691 for unused vacation.
Even cash-strapped districts have poured money into separation deals.
In DuPage, Glenbard High School District 87 was in fiscal crisis after voters turned down referendum initiatives. In the fallout, Timothy Hyland resigned as superintendent and retired, getting a deal of more than $300,000 in 2005, two years before his contract was to end.
Elgin's struggling District U-46 is still paying Connie Neale, who took a leave of absence as superintendent and then retired in 2008. Her retirement agreement included about $127,000 for unused vacation and $44,000 a year for a tax-deferred retirement plan until 2012. She also collects a public pension from Illinois.
Also, the district pays Neale's health care insurance — with a price tag of $16,000 this year. Districts often stop paying when a retired superintendent reaches Medicare age.
But Neale, who is 65, gets a better deal. U-46 taxpayers will pay her health care premiums for the rest of her life.