Camden schools chief could get buyout

Superintendent Bessie LaFra Young, whose Camden City district got failing grades in4 of 5 categories.
Superintendent Bessie LaFra Young, whose Camden City district got failing grades in4 of 5 categories. (Inquirer archive)

The city board is set to vote this week on a deal for her early exit, sources say. She was criticized for absences.

Posted: May 14, 2012

The Camden City Board of Education is set to vote Tuesday on a buyout package for Superintendent Bessie LaFra Young, who has drawn sharp criticism for having called out sick for the equivalent of more than a school year of time since being hired five years ago.

Young, a former top administrator in the Philadelphia School District who has a year left in her contract, will be stepping down June 30 from her $244,083 job at the helm of the long-struggling district, two people familiar with the negotiations told The Inquirer.

Following the terms of her contract, Young would receive three months' pay, totaling about $62,000, if the agreement is accepted by the board and then by state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf.

Young, in addition, has filed for reimbursements for five years' worth of travel and other expenses, the sources said. They spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the confidential negotiations.

It was not immediately known how much money she is requesting in reimbursements.

When reached at home Saturday, Young said she was not "at liberty to discuss" the buyout negotiations.

"It would be in violation of the process," she said, referring all questions to the board's labor attorney, Louis Lessig, who could not be reached for comment.

During Young's years as superintendent, the district of nearly 16,000 students has continued to perform poorly on state standardized tests, and 23 of the district's 26 schools have been put on a new priority list of the 70 worst-performing schools in the state.

In the latest Quality Single Accountability Continuum, or QSAC, performance review, the district received failing grades in four of the five categories - instruction and program (7 percent); operations (47 percent); personnel (9 percent); and governance (33 percent). It received 79 percent in fiscal management, but that superior performance was attributed mostly to a state fiscal monitor.

The district appealed the mostly abysmal scores. The state is expected to present its findings on the appeal this week. One of the sources said the new scores won't be much better than the state's initial findings.

In the last several months, Mayor Dana L. Redd has been a vocal critic of the district's leadership, saying Young and her team have left "much to be desired." Redd could not be reached for comment Saturday.

Young has also faced clamor from the community over her ghostly presence in the district.

In late January, district records showed that she had been absent from work at least 186 days - about the length of a school year - in the previous 18 months. In five years as superintendent, she has been absent at least 221 work days, though district records show she used 75 days of vacation and personal time toward that leave.

A lawsuit recently filed against Young and the school board questions whether those numbers might be even higher.

Former school district human resources director Monise Princilus filed a complaint March 29 in Camden County Superior Court alleging that she was suspended from her $120,000-a-year position in 2011 and her contract was not renewed because she refused to falsify Young's attendance record and challenged the district's wildly positive QSAC self-assessment.

Young declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing the pending litigation.

Just before returning to work Feb. 1, Young said she suffered from a chronic illness, but declined to specify it. On Saturday, her voice was barely audible between coughs and she said she was "not well."

Young joins the ranks of other area school superintendents who have been bought out in recent years amid controversy over their job performance.

In August, the superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, Arlene Ackerman took a $905,000 buyout plus $83,000 in unused personal and vacation time after a bitter public battle over the district leadership and finances.

Young's predecessor, Annette Knox, on the job for 51/2 years, was forced to resign in 2006 after giving herself $17,690 in performance bonuses that turned out to be based on rigged test scores.

Knox's buyout package included a year's salary, $185,483, along with $14,000 for unused vacation time and a year's health coverage through June 2007.

Knox's separation agreement included a "non-disparagement" clause in which both sides agreed "not to unjustly discredit or detract from the reputation of the other person's property or business or libel or defame the other party." Any breach of that provision could invalidate the agreement. A similar clause is expected to be inserted in Young's agreement.

Reached over the weekend, board members Barbara Coscarello and Sean Brown said they could not comment on any personnel negotiations.

However, Coscarello acknowledged that the board would likely be voting on Young's employment status. "Tuesday night is determining night ... pretty much if she is going to stay or leave," Coscarello said.

If Young's separation agreement is approved Tuesday, she would remain on the job until June 30. There was no word on who would replace her or when the board would start a search.

It also was not known whether deputy superintendent Reuben Mills would stay on.

Mills, along with assistant superintendent Andrea Gonzalez-Kirwin, was brought on by Young as part of her team when she was hired in 2007. The three officials were all working in the Philadelphia School District in administrative positions before coming to Camden. Young was superintendent of the Philadelphia School District Central Region.


Contact Claudia Vargas

at 267-815-1953, cvargas@ phillynews.com or on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog on www.philly.com/philly/blogs/

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