If Baltimore County residents had any doubts about the wisdom of moving toward a hybrid appointed/elected school board rather than the all-appointed version we have now, they were likely erased last week when the board voted to hand Superintendent Dallas Dance what amounts to a $27,000 raise. Not only did the board employ what is at best linguistic sleight of hand to provide Mr. Dance a bigger raise than his contract would allow, but it also shut down any public discussion of whether the raise was warranted. Critics of the system have contended for years that the board's all-appointed structure makes it unresponsive to the public. Last week's meeting appeared designed to prove the point.
A clause in Mr. Dance's contract says that, except under extraordinary circumstances, he cannot be given a raise greater in percentage terms than what county teachers receive. The county's teachers have not gotten cost of living adjustments in several years, but they are slated to get a one-time bonus payment equivalent to 3 percent of their salaries. In addition, they will receive step increases of varying sizes depending on where they are on the salary scale. A district official explained at last Tuesday's meeting that the board has, in the case of past superintendents, interpreted the contract clause to make it acceptable to give a superintendent a raise equivalent to the average value of step increases, which was typically between 1.7 percent and 1.9 percent. Mr. Dance now makes $260,000, so a raise of $5,000 would meet that standard, Board President David Uhlfelder said.
And it's pretty clear that Mr. Uhlfelder wanted to leave it at that. But board member Michael J. Collins didn't. He persisted in asking questions about whether anything else in the proposed contract amendments might be construed as a raise. Of course he knew good and well that they did, as the board had previously discussed the matter and voted on it in a closed session; thus, what followed over the next several minutes amounted to bureaucratic kabuki theater. (You can watch the whole thing on the board's website, bcps.org; look in the archived video section. The conversation starts around the 54-minute mark.)
Mr. Uhlfelder insisted that there was no need to discuss the matter, since the board already knew what it was voting on. Mr. Collins retorted that it would be valuable for the public to hear. Mr. Uhlfelder countered that it would be improper to discuss what the board had voted on in closed session and was about to formalize in open session until it had a signed contract with Mr. Dance. And around and around it went. "Shouldn't the public know what we voted on in closed session?" Mr. Collins asked. "They will when we have a contract," Mr. Uhlfelder replied. And then they voted, with Mr. Collins the lone holdout.
Curiously enough, after that long conversation about the impropriety of discussing the details before the contract was signed, the former board chairman, Lawrence Schmidt, piped up with an explanation that the motion they had just approved would prevent Mr. Dance from taking outside consulting work of the sort that became a minor scandal last year. Mr. Uhlfelder thanked Mr. Schmidt and confirmed that the restriction was a part of the amendments. Apparently it's OK to discuss such matters when they make the board look good.
What emerged later certainly didn't. In addition to the $5,000 raise, the board changed the valuation of Mr. Dance's vacation days, which is worth a few thousand a year, and agreed to cover his contribution to the state employees retirement system, which amounts to $18,200 a year. So while the board can stick to its story that it held Mr. Dance to a 1.9 percent raise, the value of the superintendent's compensation increased by 10 percent. The board can claim those increased benefits aren't a raise, but the teachers, whose contributions to the state retirement system aren't being covered by the taxpayers, probably wouldn't see it that way. Neither would the IRS.
We're not in a position to say whether Mr. Dance does or does not deserve a raise of that magnitude. He has been here for two years during which the transition to the Common Core standards means we have no reliable data about student performance. His contract says that he is only supposed to get a larger raise than the teachers under extraordinary circumstances. If the board (save Mr. Collins) think that applies, it is their duty to explain why.
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