Contract Process Exposes Rift on Board

Contract Process Exposes Rift on Board

Politics Divides Board; Domenech Caught in Middle

It was déjà vu for some members of the Fairfax County School Board last Thursday when they were asked to approve a contract extension for schools superintendent Daniel Domenech.

The new contract will keep the superintendent in the county until 2007, eliminates future bonuses and moves the bonuses specified in the remaining year of his current contract to base salary, bringing it to $246,982. Nevertheless, that was all irrelevant to some of the members.

What was more important was that the four political-minority members of the 12-person board were kept in the dark about the negotiations, which were taking place a year and eight months before the contract was set to expire, and then were given two-days’ notice, by fax, of the terms that had been reached.

The incident is similar to what happened nearly four years ago when the previous School Board extended Domenech's contract just a month before the new Board took office, and again with the political-minority members kept in the dark.

"What had happened last time was we had been scheduled for an executive session the Monday night before the Thursday meeting on a specific topic. As we were leaving, then chairman Jane Strauss hands out the new proposed contract. It was the first time four of us had heard about it," said Christian Braunlich (Lee), one of the four Republican-endorsed School Board members. "This time, we found out by fax Tuesday night. Some members were told about it at the state school boards conference last weekend, which Tessie Wilson and I attended. Nobody said anything to us. It would have been nice to have discussed it."

The contract extension passed 8-4 with the four minority members — Braunlich, Wilson (Braddock), Mychele Brickner (At large) and Rita Thompson (At large) opposing in protest.

THE MOTION approved last week extends Domenech's contract, which was set to expire June 30, 2004, to June 30, 2007, and modifies the existing contract, which will now expire in June 2003. It defers an annual performance bonus of $25,000 earned in the fiscal year ending June 2002 until June of next year. It deletes the bonus, valued at up to $30,000, from the remainder of the contract. However, Domenech's base salary is bumped to $246,982, essentially the amount of the deleted bonus.

In addition, the School Board increases its contribution to a tax-deferred annuity account in Domenech’s name by $10,000, making the payments $40,000 per year, and expands the civil liability self-insurance coverage to include the superintendent.

The contract was negotiated by Chairman Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill) and Vice Chair Isis Castro (Mount Vernon), who informed fellow Democratically endorsed members — Catherine Belter (Springfield), Robert Frye (At large), Ernestine Heastie (Providence), Kaye Kory (Mason), Kathy Smith (Sully) and Strauss (Dranesville) — of the possible contract agreement before notifying the whole Board.

"If some people knew before other people, it was a by a day or two," Gibson said.

"The end product, I'm not necessarily unhappy with, but to watch the level of mistrust growing last night was truly amazing," Barbara Allen, president of the Fairfax Education Association (FEA), who had attended the meeting, said Friday afternoon. "The bonus has been a real point of irritation for us. We think the superintendent has been getting bonuses for what teachers and support personnel make happen. I think he is a very good superintendent and probably is now getting what is in the range for a good superintendent."

The FEA is one of two professional associations that represent teachers and support personnel who work for Fairfax County Public Schools. Both organizations have been vocal in trying, sometimes unsuccessfully, to secure higher raises for the school staff while criticizing the annual bonuses awarded to the superintendent.

Allen said that while she was surprised to watch the debate unfold, she has not lost faith in the School Board or its ability to adopt a FY ‘03 that will be fair to everyone in the school system despite looming funding cuts from the state. "It's a process. The budget will be fought back and forth, and a decision will be made that is the best it can be made," she said.

WHILE NO ONE debated whether the superintendent has done a good job for the school system, the political-minority members of the School Board objected to the way the whole situation was handled.

"For the record, I think Dr. Domenech has done a good job. If this contract had come from a well of 12, I would have supported it," Braunlich said. "My view is that this proposal is devastating to the future of this Board. ... I've had disagreements with people on this Board, but I always had respect for the Board members because of the people who voted for them. My respect has gone down because there was no respect for the minority on this Board and the people who voted for them."

Braunlich suggested that the public should have been able to express its opinion about the contract, since it was an extension.

Wilson said, "I have never been as frustrated and angry as I am tonight that the chairman chose not to speak to four members of the Board."

Thompson also said the situation was disrespectful and that she was upset that the Board was repeating its mistakes of the past. She is one of the Board members who took office after the last contract extension. She said the new Board, whoever that may be, should have been the ones making the decision about the extension. The current Board’s terms expire in 2003.

"I don't want to do what was done to me," Thompson said. "All I ask is to have the debate."

Brickner said it boils down to a fairness issue, and while not being specific, she questioned some of the terms of the new contract. "We are just entering a budget cycle where our employees will probably not be getting what we'd like to give them. ... Therefore I find it amazing that some of the terms of this contract are what they are," Brickner said.

A FEW MAJORITY members also expressed regret at the way some members were kept in the dark but said that was not the issue, the contract was.

"I was somewhat surprised the total Board was only given two days to review the proposal, and I will not defend that decision. Mr. Gibson will have to defend that decision," Frye said. He went on to say, however, that the minority members of the Board had not supported bringing Domenech to Fairfax County and had not supported his contract extension, and therefore, they "lose some of their right to participate early on in the process."

In fact, not all of the current School Board members were on the Board when Domenech was hired or when his contract was extended the first time. In addition, nearly all of the political-minority members have voted in favor of Domenech's annual bonuses.

"I guess some people still don't understand it's not about the contract. It's about the process," Wilson said. "You said if we don't support the superintendent, we lose our right to participate early on. I voted for all of Dr. Domenech's compensation increases ... but you suggesting that if I don't agree, I lose my right to participate ... I'm offended."

"I think it shows we don't trust each other. I'm not saying I like the way this turned out, but what I'm saying is that by not trusting each other, we are concerned about giving out information in fear of where that information ends up," Heastie said.

For his part, Domenech sat silently until after the vote. "I have been here for five years, and in five years I have fallen in love with the children of this county," he said. "This is a great place to live. This is a great place to have children and to raise kids."

He said that while he would have no trouble finding a higher-paying job somewhere else, "I have chosen to stay, and my family wants to stay."

He also said one other thing that Allen took note of. "I am committed that over the next four years our staff will be the highest paid staff in the area. They deserve it," Domenech said.

"He said that to the FEA assembly [the day before the School Board meeting]. He pledged that to us," Allen said. "I would be happy if we were headed in that direction. We'll support him as long as we see movement in that direction."