The Mountain View Whisman school board is facing scrutiny over the resignation agreement with former superintendent Craig Goldman, signed late last year, which granted him $231,567 in severance pay.
Goldman's pending departure from the district was announced last November, and the agreement worked out between him and the school board in closed session meetings included a lump sum payment to him equal to 12 months' salary. The move was announced as a resignation, not a termination.
To Huff Elementary parent Brett Pauly, something didn't seem quite right.
"When I first read this, I thought, 'I've never heard of somebody being paid to quit. How do I sign up for this deal?'" Pauly said.
At the Feb. 5 board meeting, Pauly called into question the district's official story -- that Goldman resigned, initiated the resignation agreement and got a severance of nearly a quarter-million dollars. He said the settlement payment means the board either forced Goldman out and compensated him with 12 months of pay, or it gave him way more than what he was entitled to through a mutual agreement.
The only reference in Goldman's employee contract to severance pay pins such a payout to termination without cause; under that circumstance, he would have been entitled to severance equal to 12 months of pay. In this case, the payout is rooted solely to the terms of the resignation agreement rather than his employment contract, according to board president Chris Chiang.
Although the employee contract does not require the board to give Goldman a payout for resigning, Chiang said, the the money is not a gift of public funds, and state law allows for the board to pay Goldman for his work and agreement to the contract.
Chiang said the board granted Goldman the settlement money in exchange for his signing an agreement in November that includes termination of employment, a non-disparagement agreement and a waiving of his legal right to sue the district and the school board.
Chiang approved the settlement agreement with the rest of the board, and said he felt it was important and "in the best interests of the district" for them to get the legal right waived.
Pauly also raised questions over transparency, particularly in regard to whether the district can decide the superintendent's severance in closed session. He said the board's decision to hash out, draft and sign the resignation agreement with a quarter-million dollars of severance attached to it could constitute a Brown Act violation.
It turns out that might be the case, according to Nikki Moore, an attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Moore said the only legal way to discuss severance compensation is in open session. A caveat to that, she noted, is if there is anticipated or potential litigation that could arise from discussion over severance negotiations; but if that's the case, the closed-session agenda notice must cite those litigation concerns. No closed-session agenda leading up to the resignation, however, mentions litigation.
Greg Dannis, a lawyer with the Dannis Woliver Kelley law firm, helped facilitate the district throughout the resignation process to make sure there was no Brown Act violations. Dannis maintains that the school board did not violate the Brown Act in discussing Goldman's resignation and voting on the resignation agreement in closed session.
"Boards settle lawsuits (and) employment matters in closed session all the time," Dannis said.
Chiang said he would be willing to consult with additional attorneys to ascertain whether there had been a Brown Act violation in the way they approved the resignation agreement. He acknowledged that the board has been split on whether to handle personnel issues, such as Goldman's resignation, in or out of closed-session meetings.
Board member Steve Nelson, regularly a proponent of open meetings and transparency, said he believes there is no issue with the settlement agreement or the way the resignation was discussed in closed session, which is how the board handles most personnel issues.
"All contracts, union contract, real estate contract, employment contract, are usually done in closed session," Nelson said.
The timing on Goldman's announced resignation was also dubious, Pauly said. He pointed out that discussions over the former superintendent's resignation had been going on in closed session for about a month prior to the announcement, despite no closed-session agenda reflecting that it was happening until Nov. 13.
"Even though you knew all of this was going on for a month, you didn't say anything until after the November election," Pauly said. "If you don't think this would have been a hot issue in the November election, you are sorely mistaken."
Some state lawmakers are contesting the idea that superintendents should be able to secure severance deals for as much as 18 months of work through contract termination. State Assemblyman Luis Alejo proposed a bill earlier this month, AB 215, that would put a strict cap on how much money a superintendent can get when employment is terminated.
"The combination of high-paying salaries and high superintendent turnover is an issue that does not receive enough attention," Alejo said in a statement on his website. "The two factors combined create a problem of excessive severance packages at the expense of students and taxpayers."
Alejo attempted in 2013 to pass a bill that would restrict severance payouts to just six months, but the bill was defeated. It was opposed by the Association of California School Administrators.