Limiting lame-duck Pa. school boards

Legislation would curb long-term hiring and spending decisions.

Posted: August 21, 2011

For a relatively new superintendent, Wendy Royer has overseen some big changes during her two years in the small school system in Springfield Township, Montgomery County.

She led the construction of an elementary school, helped reorganize the district's three other campuses, and presided over a high school graduating class this year that - for the first time - included every enrolled senior.

For the most part, her efforts have been well-received.

But when school board members voted last week to extend her contract to 2016, one would have thought from the public outcry that they had shut down the schools.

Police were called out to keep the peace at meetings leading up to the vote. Dozens of parents packed the administration building with protest signs bearing such slogans as "Review Before Renew." Others formed Facebook complaint groups excoriating the board for making decisions they described as out of its bounds.

The dissenting parents say their problem is not with Royer but with what they see as the board's pattern in the last six months of committing Springfield to major expenditures after members' terms expire.

Those critical voices join an increasingly loud chorus statewide. Its complaints are aimed at Pennsylvania's school board election system and, in particular, the power it gives members who are on their way out or who are in contentious reelection races.

Two bills making their way through the General Assembly propose to curb the influence of such board members.

Springfield School Board President Anthony Quinn, who is seeking a third term, said he was "a little surprised at the vitriol" over Royer's contract.

"This superintendent," he said, "is heads and tails above everyone else."

Royer's new $168,500-a-year, four-year contract is set against the backdrop of a potential six-member shake-up in November's board election. Under the deal, she can hold on to her job through the winners' full terms.

During a board meeting Tuesday, Royer remained silent about her contract, only briefly saying afterward that she looked forward to continuing in her job for several years.

"They're saddling the district with these major financial decisions at a time when they're asking everyone else in the district to cut back," said Lisa Scott, the mother of two elementary students and a founding member of the Proud Parents and Community of Springfield Township School District. "And most of the board members won't be there to deal with the fallout."

Three of the nine are not seeking reelection, and three others are facing six candidates for at-large seats in November.

Quinn, who has served on the board for eight years, argues that trustees of the 2,000-student district have always decided superintendent contracts late in their terms. Furthermore, he contends, the current board has the best perspective for a decision on Royer.

"It just doesn't make fiscal sense to put that decision in the hands of a very inexperienced board who hasn't worked with her," he said.

Springfield is only the latest example of what State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D., Chester) describes as a troubling tendency for boards to make major decisions in their waning days.

In Pennsylvania, one of only three states that hold partisan school board elections, scenarios often arise in which members are voted out in March primaries but can still make costly decisions until their replacements come in the next January.

Some Springfield parents have thrown their support behind the two bills in Harrisburg, which would limit the impact that outgoing board members could have on their districts' financial futures.

The first, sponsored by State Sen. Donald C. White (R., Indiana), would prohibit lame-duck board members from voting on major financial matters and fine those who insist.

The other, put forth by Dinniman, would eliminate partisan school board elections in the hope of shortening the six-month lame-duck period for some members. Without primaries, voters would select candidates just once in a general election, and the winners would take their seats within weeks.

"As of now, you're creating a situation where if they're not comfortable with the administrative direction the previous board took, the newly elected boards are forced to dole out more money to correct course," Dinniman said.

Between 2005 and 2008, taxpayers in seven audited districts statewide paid more than $1.3 million to buy out the terms of superintendent contracts, according to a study by the Auditor General's Office. Some were paying more than one former superintendent at once.

One need look only at the legal drama in the Owen J. Roberts School District, said Dinniman, to see the havoc a lame-duck board can cause.

After a bruising 2009 primary spelled certain ouster for three of the nine members, the northern Chester County district's board fired Superintendent Myra Forrest and hired a replacement before a new board could take office.

Forrest sued the district, alleging emotional distress, violation of the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law, defamation, and breach of contract. The case is still playing out in U.S. District Court.

Last week, her replacement resigned with three years left on his contract. The board decided this time not to choose a new superintendent until after the November elections.

"As a board, we will not rush this important decision," President John W. Stone wrote in a letter to parents. "We will wait until the three newly elected members join the board in December to establish a longer-term plan. This is a responsibility and professional courtesy that all elected and incoming school directors deserve."

Dinniman's bill passed the Senate Education Committee and awaits a vote by the full Senate. White's bill passed the Senate but appears stalled in the House Education Committee, where critics argue it would effectively shorten the terms of board members.

"I think the Springfield situation will wake other areas of the state up again," Dinniman said. "There have been enough incidences now where citizens are ready for a change. Whether the politicians are, we'll see."


Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218, jroebuck@phillynews.com, or @inqmontco on Twitter. Read his blog, "MontCo Memo," at www.philly.com/montcomemo

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