Hairston gave employment contracts to two top aides before retiring

Former Baltimore County school superintendent Joe A. Hairston signed employment contracts before he retired with two top aides that would pay them nearly a half-million dollars in severance if his successor fired them when bringing in his own leadership team.

Dallas Dance, the new superintendent, sought to replace those employees when he took over this month and posted job openings for an assistant superintendent of human resources and chief of communications. And instead of letting them go — and paying a total of $459,853 and the cost of their benefits — Dance has reassigned them.

The school administrators union has characterized the contracts signed by Hairston as "unusual," and the situation has raised questions about whether the contracts are valid.

"Clearly, he was trying to protect some people here," said Thomas J. Dolina, an attorney for Baltimore County's Council for Administrative and Supervisory Employees Inc., the administrators' union.

The July 2011 contracts state that "the superintendent of schools may not terminate this employment contract for any other cause other than gross misconduct." Even if the school system were forced to lay off other employees for budget reasons, the two would have to be paid their full salaries and benefits for the length of the contract.

If the superintendent does break the agreement, the contract says, then the school system must pay out the salary and benefits for the remainder of the contract. Donald Peccia, the human resources head, earns $158,652 a year and has two more years on his contract; Phyllis Reese, the chief of communications, earns $142,549 and has one more year.

On Tuesday, the school board approved the transfer of Peccia to be a social studies teacher at Woodlawn High School and Reese to become a "distribution, copy and print specialist." Charles Herndon, a spokesman for the school system, said Reese and Peccia continue to earn their current salaries.

Hairston declined Friday to discuss the contracts, saying they are personnel issues. "Those are confidential matters. I think Don Peccia or people in the system need to talk about it. I am retired now," he said. Hairston left his post July 1 after the board voted last fall not to give him another four-year contract.

School board President Lawrence Schmidt said the board did not vote on the contracts for Peccia and Reese. The board is required to vote on expenditures greater than $25,000, but the contracts for Peccia and Reese do not specify dollar amounts. The contracts were signed by Hairston on behalf of the county board of education.

"If Dr. Peccia or Phyllis Reese assert that they have a valid contract, then I will refer it to legal counsel because of the circumstances in which they were done," Schmidt said.

It is unclear whether Reese and Peccia will contest their reassignments. Neither returned phone calls and emails asking for comment.

The school system released the contracts in response to a public information act request by The Baltimore Sun.

The contracts are atypical for two reasons. School systems generally do not give multiyear contracts to anyone other than the superintendent because top administrators work at the pleasure of the superintendent and can be laid off at any time, according to those familiar with school system contracts.

"It is unusual for them to have contracts that would protect them from being fired," said John Desmone, the executive director of the Council for Administrative and Supervisory Employees. "It is not unusual for them to be fired."

Judith S. Bresler, an attorney who specializes in education, said, "In my experience, it is still unusual for top staff to have individual contracts, although in the past few years, I have, on occasion, seen similar documents, usually in the form of a letter of agreement or a memorandum of understanding."

Bresler also said contracts typically specify salary, and the agreements with Peccia and Reese do not. "I have never seen one that did not include salary," she said. "In fact, the purpose is usually to memorialize the agreed-upon salary and benefits."

The school board routinely votes on all appointments to administrative positions, and it approved Peccia and Reese when they were originally hired. Peccia was hired in October 2004, and Reese was hired in November 2009.

But Schmidt said the new contracts "didn't come before the board for approval. I was personally unaware of the existence of those documents at the time they were signed."

The board has allowed Dance to pick his own top-level staff.

"We believe the superintendent has the right to surround himself with the senior staff that he deems appropriate. Ultimately, he will be held accountable" for the work those employees do, Schmidt said.

Schmidt said that in light of the contracts, he talked with Dance about providing the board with more information on hires.

"Dr. Dance has agreed that the Board should have full information about any new hire into senior staff positions; including compensation, educational background and experience; as well as a complete job description and explanation of that person's place in the organizational chart," he said in an email.

Dolina said that no employees in the bargaining unit of 900 administrative employees, under the Council for Administrative and Supervisory Employees, have a contract that is similar to the one that Peccia and Reese received.

Herndon said in a statement that Dance will bring to the board a standardized annual contract for all top-level administrators, so that all employees are treated equally. Herndon released the statement on behalf of Dance.

Dance has hired one new employee so far, Kevin Hobbs, a former top administrator from Wake County, N.C., who became deputy superintendent here. They worked together in the Houston public school system.

Hobbs is second-in-command of the school system, taking the place of Renee Foose, who left this month to become superintendent of Howard County schools. Hobbs' hire was approved by the school board Tuesday night; he will be paid $185,000. He was not given a contract.

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