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Legal Brief                                                         Page 10

 

Tough Economics, and Your

Role’s Reassigned   

BY MICHELE HANDZEL

legalbrief_Handzel

More frequently than ever, superintendents are being pressured to accept contract terms that give boards of education the broad authority to add to their regular responsibilities or diminish their role in the district.

Tough economic times are giving governing bodies the opportunity to impose harsh contract terms on superintendents regardless of their experience.

Those who succumb to board pressure in these ways might be referred to as the “Disposable Superintendent” or the “Superhero Superintendent.”

Tenuous Relationship
If you had five years until retirement or you wanted to keep your own children in the same district to complete high school, would you accept a five-year contract that allowed the board, at its discretion, to reassign you to a different position within the school district upon deciding you no longer were fit to be superintendent?

If you answered yes, you would not be the first superintendent to agree to a reassignment of duties in lieu of termination. Accepting this contract essentially removes your due-process rights and practically guarantees micromanagement by your board because you are agreeing to be a disposable superintendent. A board offering this at the beginning of a relationship indicates it has other plans for the district that may not include your leadership.

Not only does this employment option allow the board to reduce your role, it also may lead to problems enforcing other negotiated contract terms. A superintendent in New York recently accepted a five-year contract that permitted the board to reassign him to a different position in the district for the final two years of his tenure. The contract guaranteed his salary was fixed at the superintendent’s rate of pay and could not be reduced. That did not prevent the board from attempting to cut his salary by $100,000 after the inevitable happened and the superintendent was reassigned to a principalship. The superintendent sued the district and obtained a court order to reinstate his pay to the former level. He is working in the district as a principal, but his future plans are unclear.

Not many superintendents have the luxury of suing the board for a breach of contract, and no guarantees exist that you will succeed.

Superhero Status
In another real scenario, the school board asked the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction to take on the role of interim superintendent while the board sought a replacement for the recently terminated superintendent. The board president told the assistant superintendent the board wanted her to lead the district by accepting the superintendent role.

During the conversation, the board president mentioned the board was abolishing the assistant superintendent position. He assured her the board was confident she could handle both roles “because you have been doing both jobs so well for the past few months.” Even worse, the board offered her current assistant superintendent’s salary for the combined superintendent/assistant superintendent role.

What would you do in such a situation? Arguably, you’d feel forced to accept the newly combined role at your current salary or be out of a job. Could you handle both roles and be highly effective? Is the board simply trying to economize in tough financial times, or is it taking advantage of your compromised position and forcing you to accept unreasonable terms?

These forced moves are a reality in New York. Superintendents are pressed to make decisions during contract negotiations that will have a great impact on their future and a greater impact on contract negotiations for superintendents elsewhere.

It is difficult to gauge the impact these scenarios will have on your future employability if you agree to accept either a reduction or an addition to your duties. However, your success in a combined position may be quite compromised depending on your district’s circumstances. If you allow your role to be diminished or severely hampered in one district, future employers also may insist on preserving its rights to do the same. If you agree to take on too much responsibility in one district, it may be difficult to explain your failure to accomplish everything you were tasked to do in the district.

Michele Handzel is a school attorney with Capital Region BOCES in Albany, N.Y. E-mail: mhandzel@gw.neric.org 

 

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