Cousin granted pay raises to central office staff before retiring

Shortly before retiring this summer, Howard County school superintendent Sydney Cousin told employees in the central office that he was giving them a pay raise but did not take the matter before the school board for approval.

Some board members say that while it is within the purview of the superintendent to recommend raises for nonunion employees, the board must approve such actions and several criticized what they called a lack of transparency. Cousin, however, said in an interview last week that he believed he followed the correct process.

New Superintendent Renee Foose, who replaced Cousin July 2, told the school board that the matter may have been lost in the shuffle during the transition. "I certainly appreciate that there are some glitches in transition, and this would be an example of where that has occurred," she said last month.

The pay raise issue comes as another local superintendent sparked controversy upon retirement. In Baltimore County, 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. The county school administrators union characterized the contracts as "unusual."

Shortly before his departure, Cousin announced to 145 central office staff not covered by a bargaining agreement that they would receive a pay raise — 2.5 percent for those with salaries over $100,000 and 3.5 percent for those below $100,000.

Board member Brian Meshkin said during a board meeting in July that he knew nothing of Cousin's intentions and said the board had not approved the raise.

"My concern is on the process and how it was done," he said, "and it seems to me there was some miscommunication there. As good fiscal stewards we want to be as transparent as possible."

But board vice chair Frank Aquino said that though the matter was not brought specifically to the board for approval, schools chief financial officer Ray Brown had informed the board of Cousin's intentions.

"The intent was to bring that back to us at a later time prior to Dr. Cousin leaving and that did not happen," Aquino said. He added that historically the approval of central office staff salary increases "is really in the province of the superintendent. ... In some years we may have been asked to approve them or ratify them but generally it had been in the province of the superintendent."

When contacted by phone, Cousin said that he believed the manner in which raises were offered to central office staff was appropriate and that during his term as superintendent it has always been done that way.

"That's to my recollection. It is because the [central office staff] are the only group that doesn't have any union representation," he said.

Foose told the board that "moving forward you can be assured that we will have very transparent communication with the board, and we will have very clear processes in place so that these sorts of issues don't happen again."

The board ultimately voted 4-2 in favor of granting the pay raises in open session. Those matters are usually decided in closed meetings.

Brown said that the percentage increases were in line with the salary adjustments for employees covered by collective bargaining agreements.

Meshkin said last week that he doesn't believe there was an intention to purposely keep the matter of central staff raises from the board, but added, "The perception of it looked bad. It should have been done in the sunshine and in the open because that's the law."