Have you heard about the small South Texas school district that built a $20 million water park using state tax dollars? Or that this same school district lost almost $250,000 in the park’s first year up-and-running? Or that it also owns a golf course and that also ran a deficit last year of $300,000?
Well, La Joya ISD isn’t finished yet.
As a condition of her “retirement,” the district will “make a severance payment (to the superintendent) … of $319,069.06,” according to The Monitor (McAllen). But, that’s not all — the district will also pay her an undisclosed sum for accumulated sick leave and vacation days.
So, to recap: a school superintendent oversaw wild misspending on projects unrelated to the classroom, blew two massive holes in the district’s budget and presided over an era in which students underperformed the statewide average in reading, math, science, social studies and writing. In return, board members gave her a golden parachute worth almost a $400,000.
If that’s not worthy of torches and pitchforks, I don’t know what is.
But, as infuriating as this situation is, it would be a mistake to think La Joya ISD is the lone problem child when it comes to supersized severance payments.
In fact, between 2013 and 2017, 141 school superintendents made off with $18.3 million in severance pay, according to the Texas Monitor. And just like La Joya, many of those golden parachutes were controversial.
Last year, Katy ISD’s superintendent received a $750,000 severance payment — equal to roughly twice his annual salary. That huge payoff also came after some embarrassing personal revelations were made public.
Garland ISD’s departing superintendent also received a big buyout, walking away with $686,225. Johnson City ISD’s outgoing superintendent got almost twice his annual salary ($149,547), even while the district struggled with an almost $1 million deficit at the time.
Six-figure severance payments are an affront to taxpayers, especially today as too many Texans struggle with sky-high tax bills. Setting aside the tax issue, these payments don’t do anything to help students learn. No student in any of the districts cited above saw their reading or writing test scores improve because of a big buyout. If anything, the payments had the opposite effect since those dollars weren’t available to be spent in the classroom.
This kind of compensation scheme has no place in our public schools. Unfortunately, too many school boards are either unwilling or incapable of tamping down on it. So, it’s up to the Texas Legislature to rein in the bad behavior. At a minimum, state lawmakers ought to limit the maximum allowable size of a payment and require that districts make the terms of these arrangements public. These are details that taxpayers have every right to know.
Enacting reforms like this will better ensure that school districts are spending money where it’s needed most — in the classroom. It will also foster an environment of greater government transparency and accountability. Those elements are missing from a lot of school district business, not just severance payments.
It’s time state lawmakers took action on supersized severance payments. Texas taxpayers can’t afford any more La Joya ISDs.