In Our View: Golden Chute Taints Trust

Battle Ground students will pay dearly for outgoingsuperintendent's $401,715 deal

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In the end, students will pay for it — and not only those in Battle Ground Public Schools.District officials revealed last week that outgoing Superintendent Shonny Bria will receive a severance package worth $401,715 in the wake of what initially was portrayed as her "retirement." That includes $300,000 for the remaining two years on her contract; two full years of medical coverage for Bria and her husband, worth $45,360; a cash-out of $41,149 for 38 unused vacation days; and a payment of $15,206 into a health savings account for unused sick leave.

The vacation and sick leave payments are standard for departing employees. The rest is another dagger in the backs of taxpayers.

All too often in recent years, the public has been poked with egregious payouts for departing public employees. In 2010, Washougal paid five months' worth of salary for a finance director who had been fired after seven months on the job; that same year, Battle Ground paid $95,000 — four months of salary and six months of health coverage — for a fired city manager; in 2006, the severance package for a fired city manager cost Ridgefield $247,500.

In each of those cases, taxpayers were left holding the bill. In the case of Bria and the Battle Ground school district, the carnage goes well beyond that.

To help pay for Bria's severance package, the district will hold open the positions of two retiring administrators for the 2013-14 school year. Which leads to this question: If the district can function without those positions for an entire school year, why fill them at all?

More important, Bria's severance package — which several Battle Ground administrators said they were unaware of until it was reported in The Columbian — serves to diminish the trust between school districts and their constituents. It serves to make taxpayers throughout the county wary of how their money is being spent by their local schools.

In April, Battle Ground voters approved a four-year maintenance and operation levy for the school district, but there's no doubt that task will be more difficult the next time around in the wake of Bria's golden parachute.

That is a problem that will ripple outward from Battle Ground. That is a problem that can impact all local school districts the next time they come before voters with hat in hand.

The public these days is leery of institutions that purportedly exist to serve that very public. Officials, be they at the city, county, or school level, have demonstrated all too frequently that they have little regard for the people who are actually paying the bills.

Executives and school boards will tell us that long-term contracts and lucrative severance packages are the cost of doing business. They'll say that in order to attract quality leadership they must offer some measure of security for those positions.

That, however, is a classic chicken-and-egg argument. Providing a long-term contract simply because other school districts do it is an insult to the taxpayers. The quick solution: Don't offer five-year contracts to people you are going to end up firing long before the contract is completed. Good administrators are valuable and can be difficult to find, but they aren't worth long-term deals that will end with a violation of the public trust.

That is a cost that adds up to much more than $401,715, and it's one that in the long run will be paid by Battle Ground students.