Sunday, November 11, 2007

Boards caught asleep at the switch...

Here's an opinion piece written by Mike Scandron, a reform-minded board member in Bloomfield Hills.

Birmingham Eccentric: Hills school board actions show new course is needed (11/11/07)

He offers this depressing thought: "...I did not consider that as an elected official, I would be battling a well-entrenched, change-resistant bureaucracy."

I can relate. When I ran, I thought that I'd be offering new perspectives that perhaps other board members had not thought of before, and recall being certain that others would listen to reason, and be open to compromise. I remember dismissing those who accused me of being naive; I accused them of being overly cynical.

I've since apologized to all of them!

Scandron goes on to discuss concerns over a newly discovered $10.6 million capital improvement fund, and wonders, "Why wasn't the board made aware of this fund by the administration?" Perhaps it's because the administration doesn't feel sincerely accountable to a board which is packed with trustees who view their roles as largely ceremonial, and dismiss any questions by independent board members as inappropriate "micromanaging".

I'm not sure which is worse: that the board wasn't told about the fund, or that they didn't bother to read enough of the district's financial statements to uncover it on their own.

This is not unlike the problems that surfaced recently in Howell.

The Press & Argus: Contract sets Howell super apart (11/04/07)

Here, the board JUST discovered that the superintendent contract they had approved was actually a five year rolling contract, meaning that it would not end until they gave him a five year notice! There was no "just cause" clause, which essentially means he cannot be fired!

This serves as an excellent example of the lax oversight by boards... the contract has been like this since 2002! Howell is not all that unique... most school board members view oversight questions as "rude", and believe boards don't need "watchdogs."

Here's a few tidbits from those that approved the contract:

"Mary Jo Dymond, the board president at the time the 2002 contract was approved, and former board members William Hulbert and Roger Dresden said they were unaware the clause left the contract."

Sitting board member Pratt, who re-approved the contract in 2005, says, "I did not read it. But there were no separate copies given to us."

Again, which is worse: that they rubber-stamped the contract without understanding it, or that they rubber-stamped it without ever receiving a copy of what they were approving?

What's more, the 2005 renewal included this absurd clause:

"If the superintendent's employment terminates upon expiration of the contract, there's also an unusual provision stating that if his successor receives a higher starting salary than Breiner's final salary, then Breiner will be paid the difference."

Wendy Day, a reform-minded board member elected in 2006, was the only one that seemed to acknowledge any responsibility when she said, "And shame on me for not asking for copies of contracts when I was (elected)."

To put this in perspective, imagine if the state legislature -- like the Bloomfield board -- just discovered a proportionally equal fund of $4 billion somewhere, after they just raised our taxes. Or what if the legislature had just approved a rolling five year contract -- like the Howell board -- for some state executive which contained no ability to fire them without a buyout of $860,000? People would be demanding recalls!

But school boards are an aberration of government. There will be no recalls. And in the next election cycle, there will be a segment of the public that will still support the status-quo folks Mike and Wendy are battling. They'll dismiss these examples of gross neglect, and label anyone that expresses concern as "naysayers complaining about adult issues that have nothing to do with educating our kids."

Going forward, any further efforts by Wendy and Mike to exercise reasonable oversight on other issues will be called "unproductive fighting and bickering" or "inappropriate micromanaging".

These stories are not unique. In fact, they are quire common in Michigan's K-12 education system. They will continue as long as the public continues to tolerate it.

I've posted both articles below in case the links don't work.


Hills school board actions show new course is needed

Government is largely wasteful and highly inefficient. It swallows enormous amounts of money, returning only modest benefits. Michigan, in particular, is ineffective in solving problems with any sense of urgency.

Knowing my efforts would be thwarted at every turn, I nevertheless entered the political arena. Investment in our community, concern for the education of our children and the urge to bring fiscal responsibility to our district motivated me. In my naivety, I did not consider that as an elected official, I would be battling a well-entrenched, change-resistant bureaucracy. Also, school administrations traditionally "pack" boards with trustees who empathize with their views, methods and objectives. Like a ship at sea, a course change is no mean feat. It takes a long time and requires considerable dedication, planning and focus.

Consider three items from the Bloomfield Hills school board Oct. 18 agenda:

  • 2006-07 financial report.

  • Name change for Alternative High School.

  • Change in election date to even-year November.


As part of the audit process, Yeo&Yeo, newly appointed this year, examined a $10.6 million Capital Improvement Fund, established in 1994, when $1.2 million was moved to it from the General Fund. Through 2002, funds totaling $13,060,000 were transferred to this fund. This fund has made loans to Bloomin' Kids and the IA, and has funded projects at Andover and Oakland ISD as examples. Several concerns: Why wasn't the board made aware of this fund by the administration? Why was it not considered when proposing the sinking fund levy of $50 million and 1.5 mils to the taxpayer? Why was there no mention of this fund when the board and administration decided to accept grants totaling approximately $600,000 requiring us to pledge, in perpetuity, our 32-acre nature center, and; where was this item in both the "mega-school" and "two, new high school" debates?

Note: On Nov 1, we learned of yet another "capital projects fund" containing $1 million. That we and the public were not made acutely aware of all resources borders on malfeasance.


From 18 to 23 students attend this facility. Their principal wants a name change - "alternative" has a negative connotation. Note: Alternative High School is for problem children who do not fit into the general student population. They have personal, emotional and/or disciplinary issues which prevent them from attending traditional schools.

Board policy provides we take 90 days to consider re-naming a facility. Nevertheless, Ingrid Day, board trustee, who at her first meeting reminded us that board policy exists for a reason and must be observed, now states that in the interest of expediency, we overlook board policy and immediately approve the name change. Meanwhile, Chris Barnett, assistant superintendent for Human Resources, reviews the policy on a laptop. Returning to her seat, she announces, "Alternative High School is not a facility; it is a program." Re-naming policies do not apply. Name change approved!


Finally, three years and $120,000 later, we chose November. Many exhorted our colleagues and administration to choose November. The administration's reasoning against November was specious: School board issues are too critical to be lost on the larger ballot; voters get "ballot fatigue"; most voters have little interest in school issues; other districts are selecting May.

The administration purposely overlooked: The district incurred substantial costs to hold their own elections (over $120,000 for the last three); voter turnout is considerably less in May; voter fatigue is a myth - our residents are capable of making their way to the bottom of the ballot; larger voter turnouts neutralize special interest groups and majority vote determines the issues. Consider this: in 2006, Cynthia von Oeyen ran unopposed for her board seat. Cost to taxpayers for this one-item ballot - $57,000.

Our district needs total reorganization and a strong, experienced CEO with expertise in operating businesses of this size. The organization must be populated with highly qualified experts in all disciplines. The CEO will source and hire experts in each field bringing the highest competence to each discipline. Measurable teacher and administrative performance standards are an essential component. The concept of tenure, that your performance is beyond challenge, is a concept truly flawed. All must be held accountable.

We are launching our strategic planning process. We will be in touch with you. Join us in making a difference. Let your opinions be known.

Mike Scadron is a Bloomfield Hills school board trustee.


Contract sets Howell super apart
By Kristofer Karol

Howell's Chuck Breiner would appear to have a pretty good employment contract.
By far the highest-paid superintendent in Livingston County schools, Breiner has a five-year deal that automatically extends itself annually. He gets an annuity, a longevity bonus, a generous car allowance and up to six weeks of vacation.

He even has an almost unheard of clause that guarantees him an extra payment should his successor make more money than he does.

But his contract is missing a provision that is included in almost every other superintendent's contract in Michigan. Breiner's contract does not have a "just cause" clause, which allows a district to fire a superintendent for good reason without incurring additional financial responsibility.

All of the other five superintendentsin the county have such a clause. Breiner, superintendent since 1999, used to have such a clause in his contract but it was removed about five years ago. Neither board members at the time nor school administrators have explained how or why that occurred.

Without that clause, some board members say removing Breiner — who has come under criticism from some of those same people recently — could require honoring the remainder of his contract. That could add up to $800,000.

Breiner has a base salary of $140,000, but additional payments bring his compensation to more than $159,000, not including accumulated vacation days.

The mystery

The "just cause" clause disappeared starting in 2002, when Breiner's contract went from three to five years in length, making it the longest of any Livingston County superintendent's.

Sue Drazic, Sue Swartz and Jeanne Clum, board members who approved the 2002 contract, did not return multiple calls seeking comment.

Former board member Ted Parsons said he couldn't recall anything being said about the clause at the time.

When asked if he had read the contract, Parsons first said he didn't "recall procedurally what we did," and then added he would have read the document had he voted for it, which he did.

Mary Jo Dymond, the board president at the time the 2002 contract was approved, and former board members William Hulbert and Roger Dresden said they were unaware the clause left the contract.

"I always read them to see 'all right, let's make sure we haven't had anything added in here,'" Hulbert said. "You're almost looking for things that have been added in and not subtracted out."

Several former board members said the district's law firm, Thrun Law Firm; Lynn Parrish, deputy superintendent for labor relations and personnel; or Breiner would know more about why the clause was removed.

Parrish and the Thrun Law Firm did not return calls seeking comment, while Breiner deferred questions on this story to current and previous board members.

Carl Hartman, associate executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, has worked with districts on more than 100 superintendent contracts over the years.

He estimated that less than 5 percent of all those contracts have no "just cause" clause.

"I'd encourage (having a clause) because a contract is a two-way street. There needs to be an element of fairness in it," Hartman said. "Due process is guaranteed to us."

Current board President Phil Westmoreland agrees.

"I would look specifically at the out clauses," he said. "These things are written when everyone is happy, but you need to be prepared for all eventualities."

Ed Literski, who was elected to the board this year, was also surprised by the lack of a clause.

"There is obviously no 'just cause' clause, and that is almost unheard of, to my knowledge," said Literski, who is also an attorney.

"I think (seeking termination) would depend on the conduct. The lack of the clause in there certainly makes it more difficult. I think if his conduct was egregious enough, I think we could."


Still, some current board members understand a deal is a deal.

"There's not a lot we can do about it," Westmoreland said of the contract. "How we got where we're at today — we have to live with it."

That still didn't stop current board member Wendy Day, who was elected in 2006, from airing her concerns.

"I think it's a completely irresponsible contract for the board to sign," said Day, who has recently stated it is time for Breiner to step down.

Recently appointed board member Dean Miller said he has concerns with how the contract is automatically extended for a year if no board action is taken, and how it appears Breiner can leave whenever he wants, on his terms.

"What's sad on it is I think we're seated on the board to do what's best for the district, and this contract never will be good for the district," said Miller, who added he wouldn't have approved the current contract.

"It puts us in a bad spot. It was a poorly constructed contract and the people that did it, I think they knew that at the time. They're all gone, so they don't really have to answer to it anymore."

Westmoreland reiterated the need for an out clause.

"I would probably have done a few things differently," he said. "Not being there ... I don't even know the circumstances that were followed at the time."

Literski criticized the contract, too, saying there is no clear definition of duties for Breiner or what reasons the board could use for termination.

He noted the board could always ask Breiner, who has been superintendent since 1999, to renegotiate, but that it couldn't force him to. At the most, he added, the board could let Breiner know it doesn't plan on extending his contract any longer.

"I was very disappointed in the contents of the contract. It does not appear to be a fair contract. It appears he could walk away whenever he wants," Literski said.

"I think that if the board decides they do want to sever the relationship, they would have to at least put him on notice. That may or may not be done in the near future."

Job security?

If the superintendent's employment terminates upon expiration of the contract, there's also an unusual provision stating that if his successor receives a higher starting salary than Breiner's final salary, then Breiner will be paid the difference.

Hartman said he has never seen that in a superintendent's contract.

That particular clause was added in Breiner's 2005 contract, Dymond said, because the board wanted to show Breiner its support after the superintendent had refused a raise. Dymond said she had heard other districts have similar provisions, although she didn't specify which ones.

Dymond said she was on the 2005 compensation committee — along with board members Mike Hall and Parsons — that was partly responsible for ironing out contract details.

"If there's heat to be taken, then the board will take the heat for this," Dymond said. "Unfortu-nately, I think (Breiner) took a lot of heat for it."

Parsons said the clause was added as a simple business move.

"(There) would have been the potential for him to reach a point where he was not being paid for what the market would demand for a school district the size of Howell so, thus, as a way of being fair and equitable to him in the final year of his contract, we would have made that stipulation," Parsons said.

Hall, who is currently heading a grass-roots community committee to gather support for all the district's leadership, wouldn't comment for this story.

According to the Michigan Association of School Administrators, the average nationwide salary in the 2005-2006 school year for a superintendent in a district of 2,500-9,999 students was $131,446, and $154,714 for leading a district of 10,000-24,999 students.

Howell has about 8,500 students and Breiner has a base salary of $140,000.

Breiner was a finalist for the top post in the Oakland County Intermediate School District in 2004, as well as the Saginaw Intermediate School District this year.

Breiner said in a Daily Press & Argus interview this year he had hopes of retiring at the end of his contract.

Current board member Jeannine Pratt said she believed if he left of his own accord, then the district would not owe him any additional money.

Pratt is the only current board member who was around when the 2005 contract was approved. The current board has no members from when the 2002 contract was approved.

Drazic, Clum, Parsons, Swartz and Hall approved the 2005 contract. Dymond and Pratt were not present at that meeting.

Pratt admits she relied on the compensation committee to work everything out.

"There was no reason for me to ever doubt what the committee was presenting to us," Pratt said.

"I did not read it. But there were no separate copies given to us."

That agreement is Breiner's current contract, which goes through 2012. The contract itself says it lasts until 2010; however, if the board takes no action, it is automatically extended a year.

The board has taken no action on the contract the last two years, so board members said it remains a five-year deal.

"This last year, we let that timeline go by without knowing we had any responsibility," Day said. "And shame on me for not asking for copies of contracts when I was (elected)."

Contact Daily Press & Argus reporter Kristofer Karol at (517) 552-2835 or at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

At lease Wendy had the guts to say she should have looked earlier.

Both Mikes here have also been caught sleeping at the start lights.

The issue should be to make corrections upon discovery. When and if corrections are not made, it is time for change.

However; I want to know how this applies to Rochester? It is great anecdotal evidence of missmanagement but what about here?