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A change in culture?
Sanchez: “For 20+ years, the tail wagged the dog”

by Ivan Foley
Landmark editor

Transparency is a word that has come to the forefront in the Park Hill School District as of late.

From requests for public information made by district patrons under the Sunshine Law that apparently didn’t get filled in a thorough manner, to information surrounding the total salary and compensation package paid to the previous superintendent, the question of whether the district is operating in a transparent manner has become a matter of public discussion.

While the question is valid, progress is being made, says Chris Seufert, school board member who has been one of the leaders on the current board when it comes to being as open as possible with the public.

“In my six months on the board, I think we have made strides toward greater transparency and accountability. Our web site contains more information on compensation than ever before,” Seufert said this week.

As The Landmark first reported in last week’s issue (Between the Lines column, page 2, Jan. 30, 2013 issue), Park Hill’s actual salary and compensation package for previous superintendent, Dennis Fisher, who retired last year, was considerably more than the figure reported by the district to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and considerably more than the figure routinely reported by the district to some patrons and media who had asked.

Routinely the number reported by the school district as being Fisher’s salary in the 2011-12 school year was $243,500. But that figure only included Fisher’s base salary of $239,500 plus a $4,000 doctoral stipend.

The Landmark has confirmed Fisher actually received much more than that in cash and cash-equivalent compensation. For instance, Fisher was paid an additional $50,000 in “benefit maintenance,” designed to be the equivalent of a 401K plan. In reality, it was cash that Fisher was given, and he was free to use it in any manner of his choosing.

Also, Fisher earned an additional $40,000 in bonus money for the district meeting certain requirements. This brings the total paid to Fisher in cash to $333,500.

On top of that, Park Hill taxpayers paid $98,000 into Fisher’s pension in 2011-12 alone.

Add in benefits for items such as a health plan, dental, vision, life, disability, family health, family dental, family vision, Medicare, vehicle allowance, and the grand total of Fisher’s salary and compensation package in 2011-12 cost Park Hill taxpayers $453,968.

Seufert admitted he was stunned when he found this out recently. He was not on the board when any of Fisher’s contracts were negotiated or signed.

Seufert admitted he is particularly bothered that in the 2010-11 school year, Fisher’s total compensation increased more than $21,000 because “that same year, our teachers went without a raise. I think some of that money would have been better spent in the classroom.”

Another concern being raised by some district patrons who have contacted The Landmark is that Park Hill renegotiated Fisher’s contract (perhaps twice) during the terms of existing contracts, which may have violated the Missouri Constitution Article III Section 38(a) (viewable on the web at http://ago.mo.gov/opinions/1971/171-71.htm).

That section of the Missouri Constitution prohibits a “school board and the superintendent from terminating a partially performed three year contract and executing a new three year contract providing for the performance of the same duties at a greater compensation when the only reason for so doing is to increase the superintendent's compensation before the expiration of the current contract.”

Fred Sanchez, who resigned from the school board last fall after self-reporting that he had a concealed weapon on his ankle during a board meeting, was a member for a portion of Fisher’s time at Park Hill. He admits even he was stunned at the dollar figure that has recently come to light.

“Over the years, I never knew for certain (the value of Fisher’s total salary and compensation package) as it was most difficult to follow the pea under the shells,” Sanchez says.

Sanchez says there were board members who were too happy to operate in a fashion that was not transparent to the public.

“There were meetings held in restaurants with legal counsel and attendance strategically planned so there was never more than three board members present on this issue, and on other topics like the Union Chapel sewer project,” Sanchez told The Landmark.

“I regret I was never in a strategically favorable position to pursue the matter. I was considered a loose cannon, as was Mike Otto, and over time we were sequestered and ill-informed,” Sanchez commented.

“There is a divide as to the propriety of pursuing the past and to what end. Both sides have legitimate arguments. After all, Fisher was Missouri Superintendent of the Year. Who’s going to take on that? Plus, his political skills were superb as he knew how to have the civic players behind him as he orchestrated policy,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez said the environment at the time did not allow for attempted scrutiny from a couple of members of the board.

“Any question and it was immediately tagged as disruptive, disloyal, mistrusting, micromanaging, and just plain stupid,” Sanchez recalls.

On the other hand, in the words of Sanchez, “the reward for good behavior (by board members) was pizza and pop to soothe the sore neck muscles incurred from the constant head bobbing yes-yes-yes.”

Sanchez says he wants to make one thing perfectly clear: “The issue wasn’t the performance of the district to meet its mandate. The issue was the performance of the board and its inability to carry its corporate obligation. That was to set policy and not be run by it.”

Last year during the search for Fisher’s replacement, there was a push among Fisher’s supporters for Mark Miles, assistant superintendent at the time, to be given the job. That push failed, despite a much publicized though perhaps somewhat awkward “Occupy Park Hill” movement.

Sanchez offered his analysis of that timeframe.

“The upheaval and mob activity during the Mark Miles circus was about power, money, contracts and influence. It was the demise of the closed culture that had been built over more than 20 years.

“In all my years in and out of politics and cutting my teeth in real political combat south of the river, I have never witnessed such political courage as was shown by the five board members who broke the back of a system that had been a bobbing-head board,” Sanchez said.

“For 20+ years the tail wagged the dog. However, the giant is arousing and will not go down without a fight,” Sanchez told The Landmark.

The former board member sees the upcoming April election for Park Hill’s board seats as a potential big moment for continued improvement in the areas of transparency and direction for the district.

“This coming election is the line in the sand. Does the board return to the administration setting policy or continue with a board that knows its role and is courageous enough to take on the special interests whose influence and the status quo outweighed new visions and new ideas for the children of the district,” Sanchez remarked to The Landmark.

As for Seufert, he says he’ll continue to work for transparency and responsible spending of tax dollars.

In addition to touting more compensation information than ever available on the district’s web site, Seufert says the salary of new superintendent Scott Springston is set at a reasonable level. Seufert also praised the work that Springston is doing to improve an attitude of openness with the board and the public.

For the record, Springston’s base salary is $184,000. He’ll get an additional $20,000 cash for “benefit maintenance” and could earn up to $15,000 in bonus money if the district meets certain standards this year, for a total potential cash payout of $219,000.

The district will pay about $65,000 into Springston’s pension this year. Including health benefits, his total compensation package amounts to $303,617. That’s $150,000 less than Park Hill had invested in Fisher last year.

“Park Hill is surveying other districts’ compensation practices to make sure that we remain competitive. If we stay on this path, I am confident we will make responsible decisions going forward,” Seufert said.