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Should Public Have Its Say?

New Law Forces School Board to Draft Contract Policy

The approval of the Fairfax County schools superintendent's contract early and without the knowledge of the political minority six months ago has resulted in a change in the state code and exposed a rift on the board that still resonates going into election season.

While some board members expressed disappointment at what they see as the General Assembly stepping into their local business, others hope to embrace the amendment requiring a full School Board to receive notification of the renegotiation of a superintendent's contract, and to expand it to include the general public.

"I don't think this is a surprise to anyone that [the General Assembly legislation] came forward. For as long as I've been on the board, this one incident on the board was not our shining moment," said School Board member Tessie Wilson (Braddock). "I hate that we had to rely on state legislation. I think there should be a portion of the law that includes public comment."

THE RIFT BEGAN in November when School Board members were asked to approve a renegotiated contract for Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech, whose contract was not set to expire until June 2004. While a majority of the board was kept in the dark during the negotiation process, the four Republican-endorsed members were given two-days notice of the new contract, by fax. The contract had been renegotiated by then chairman Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill) and current chair Isis Castro (Mount Vernon), who notified fellow Democratic-endorsed members new terms had been reached before bringing the matter before the entire board. In protest, the political minority, Wilson, Christian Braunlich (Lee), Rita Thompson (At large) and Mychele Brickner (At large) voted against the contract, which bumped Domenech’s base salary to $246,982, eliminated the annual bonus and keeps the superintendent in Fairfax County through June of 2007.

As a result, former School Board member Del. Gary Reese (R-67), introduced legislation requiring the notification of the entire School Board and the public of the renegotiation of a school-system superintendent's contract. Reese’s bill failed, however, one proposed by state Sen. James "Jay" O'Brien (R-39), requiring the full board to be given 30-days notice in advance of any meeting to approve a renegotiated contract and to have the votes recorded in the meeting minutes did pass.

Typically, the School Board introduces items at the meeting preceding the scheduled vote, giving the public an opportunity to speak on the matter during the citizen participation period of the next meeting. However, that policy was not followed in the case of the superintendent's contract. Instead, the agenda was amended that night to include the new contract just prior to the vote being taken.

"THE SUPERINTENDENT is not like other bureaucrats. He is the most powerful person within the school system and affects the school system more than any single person," said Matthew Wansley, the student representative to the board. "If you give that person so much power and he isn't elected, the public should have an opportunity to sway the School Board as to whether he should be retained. I don't think they should have a say on his salary, but they should say whether he is retained."

Wilson said public comment should be sought after the entire board has come to some sort of consensus on the contract.

"It's a shame it required state law in order for this board to be fair," said Braunlich. "When we sign a contract with a superintendent it's public information, so the public has an expectation of when it has an ending point. ... The issue is whether we think the public is a partner in a gut check. I would support a two-week public notification."

Many of the political majority spoke out against a formal public comment period, saying the general public is not shy about using e-mail, phone calls, letters and public speaking to let board members know where it stands on issues whether the items are on the agenda or not.

"We get public comment on the superintendent every day," said Gibson. "We only evaluate the superintendent in closed meeting. So much of what the superintendent does and so much of what we do is public."

Robert Frye (At large) said formally seeking the public’s comment on the performance of the superintendent would not be completely fair, since only the School Board members know what benchmarks they set for the school-system's leader.

“Us and us alone know what the 12 of us have asked the superintendent to do. People can see what is happening, but the superintendent is essentially the employee of the 12 of us," he said.

CATHERINE BELTER (Springfield) suggested the School Board wait and see what sort of policy other school jurisdictions put into place as a result of the state legislation.

While Jane Strauss (Dranesville) suggested the subject of the contract should be included in the agenda schedule, she said she does not support public debate. Strauss also said to be fair, the contract renegotiations should be scheduled six months in advance of the termination date, to afford the superintendent the time to find another job if the contract is not going to be extended.

The political minority found a sympathetic ear in Ernestine Heastie (Providence), who expressed dissatisfaction in how the contract was handled; however, she also expressed disappointment with the response.

"I agree there should have been more time for board members before it was brought up [for a vote] and I remember at the time Mrs. Wilson said she would bring the matter up for a work session and before that the state took action," Heastie said. "So to say it took state action isn't fair because we don't know how it would have been handled. We weren't given a chance."

Domenech said he thought allowing public opinion to factor into contract negotiations created a conflict of interest because a sitting superintendent would become preoccupied with trying to retain is job rather than concentrating on the day-to-day operations of the school system.

"The fact of the matter is, you will be held accountable for the hiring and retention of a superintendent," Domenech told the board.

The state legislation requires the School Board to draft a policy governing the contract, which will be subject to a vote later this year.