Tuesday, May 11, 2021
May 11, 2021

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In Our View: Superintendent’s severance undermines trust

The Columbian

Steve Webb’s abrupt departure as superintendent of Vancouver Public Schools has raised questions from the public. In failing to address those questions, the district has engaged in all-too-common opacity that violates the public trust and does long-term damage to the district.

Webb and members of the school board agreed Feb. 11 to part ways. On Friday, following a public records request from The Columbian, it was revealed that he will be paid $455,000 split between two lump sums — one next month and another in January. Webb’s salary was $272,081; his total compensation was worth $335,182.

Webb, superintendent since 2008, previously had announced that he would step down in June and remain with the district for a year in an advisory role. On Feb. 9, it was announced that he had been placed on leave; two days later, his immediate separation from the district was agreed upon.

Board members have not commented on the suddenly rocky transition. The Columbian reported that Webb and district officials agreed to not disparage each other personally or professionally, and that neither side was admitting liability in making the agreement.

Reporter Meg Wochnick wrote that Webb waived his right to sue or file a grievance and agreed “not to communicate with or contact, directly or indirectly in any manner whatsoever, current or former employees of released parties for the purpose of encouraging, promoting, initiating or discussing any action whatsoever.”

Such language is common, with school districts eager to avoid costly and contentious legal proceedings. But it poorly serves the public that pays the bills.

In 2013, Battle Ground schools paid a terminated superintendent a severance package of more than $400,000. In March 2019, Evergreen Public Schools paid more than $300,000 to a superintendent following his resignation.

These are public employees whose salaries and benefits are paid through taxes, and transparency should be expected. According to a 2017 article in Education Week, a journal covering K-12 education: “Large payouts to superintendents with multiple years left on their contracts are unusual, but have been happening with more frequency in recent years.”

Several states have taken steps to limit those payouts. In California, a 2015 law limits superintendents’ severance to 12 months’ salary. In Texas, the state can reduce funding to a district if a severance package exceeds one year’s worth of salary and benefits.

Washington state law (RCW 28A.400.220) reads: “A school district board of directors may compensate an employee for termination of the employee’s contract in accordance with the termination provisions of the contract. If no such provisions exist the compensation must be reasonable based on the proportion of the uncompleted contract.”

In providing generous severance packages and few details, school boards undermine trust. That lack of transparency lingers in the public mind.

In addition to educating students, districts must be in the business of public relations. Capital projects are funded through passage of bond measures. Operations are funded through passage of school levies; while the Legislature has taken steps to provide more reliable funding, districts still rely on levies to provide a comprehensive education.

Such a partnership with the public should lead districts to avoid overly charitable contract agreements and to act in the best interest of taxpayers. Their reliance on the public, after all, will exist long after a superintendent has come and gone.