Public schools are handing bags of cash to superintendents as they walk out the door. And the bags keep getting bigger.
The latest example of excessive superintendent severance pay comes courtesy of Lancaster ISD, a small school district in Dallas County with only about 7,500 students. Two weeks after finalizing a five-year, $1.6-million contract, the district decided to part ways with its top administrator. Officials wouldn’t say why the relationship ended, but the move could cost taxpayers more than $2 million, which represents the salary and benefits he would have earned through 2025.
The massive, unearned payout is so big that it threatens the district’s finances.
At a November board meeting, Lancaster ISD’s chief financial officer Shonna Pumphrey told trustees: “It is going to reduce our projected fund balance to virtually nothing. And that’s provided all of our revenue projections hold.”
Reasonable objections proved unpersuasive in the end and a slim majority approved the deal. After it was negotiated behind closed doors. The decision prompted some to sue. It’s not clear how a court will rule, but one thing is evident: Superintendent severance pay is out of control. And not just in Lancaster ISD either. This is a statewide problem.
In 2018, the Texas Monitor reported: “Texas school districts have approved $6 million in severance deals to 24 superintendents in the past 15 months.” Another 2018 report by the Legislative Budget Board, a state agency responsible for fiscal matters, found that: “School districts bought out 141 superintendents’ contracts [from 2013 to 2017] and paid approximately $18.3 million in severance payments.”
Both studies found millions of dollars denied to students, diverted from classrooms, and taken from taxpayers for the gain of a few superintendents. The public benefited not at all.
Worse, some of these golden parachutes were given to government employees who didn’t deserve them.
In 2018, Katy ISD’s superintendent resigned after he was accused of childhood bullying incidents during a public meeting. The district sent him away with a $750,000 payout package.
In 2019, La Joya ISD faced public scrutiny after spending “a cool $20 million,” according to ABC 13 in Houston, to open a water park. The superintendent who oversaw the gross misuse of public money was pressured out of the top spot, but not before the board approved a severance package worth at least $467,000.
Many other examples exist. The problem begs for a legislative fix. And, fortunately, if state lawmakers are inclined to act, they’ll have plenty of other states to look to for solutions.
Over the years, other state legislatures, like those in Illinois, Florida and California, have passed laws to curtail this bad behavior. In 2018, then Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the Government Severance Payment Act into law, limiting payouts to no more than 20 weeks of compensation, prohibiting pay to employees fired for misconduct, and extending the requirements to most governmental entities.
The Texas Legislature would be wise to follow the lead of other states and reform severance pay practices. But lawmakers should also take things a step further.
Many of these sweetheart deals are negotiated behind closed doors and out of the public’s view. We shouldn’t let that happen, both because of the size of payouts involved and the importance of the superintendent position.
To help remedy the problem, lawmakers should, at a minimum, also require any separation agreement to be posted online so that the public can see the details involved. It’s only by operating transparently that that we can hope for accountability.
It’s time to reform superintendent severance pay. Taxpayers demand it and schoolchildren deserve it.