Trustees get lesson in micromanaging
Back in March, we cautioned Austin school trustees against micromanaging financial and leadership decisions of Superintendent Meria Carstarphen. Then, Carstarphen had recommended that trustees declare a financial exigency to address a budget gap and to downsize a bloated bureaucracy handed to her by former Superintendent Pat Forgione.
Trustees nonetheless overruled Carstarphen, voting to use a “program change” to accomplish Carstarphen’s management and budget goals. That decision now seems to have backfired, and the fallout has led to a costly settlement — or potential lawsuit if trustees don’t approve a pending settlement when they meet on Monday.
We noted in March that the Austin school district “needs the legal protection of exigency (to make job cuts), particularly because Carstarphen wants to get savings from her central office” and stated the risks the district faced by severing contract jobs without such legal protection.
In all, the district put 113 jobs on the chopping block. Among those were 36 contract jobs. The move to downsize was part of a broad effort to close a multimillion-dollar budget gap in the proposed $718 million 2010-11 budget by cutting jobs as the district eliminated programs or departments. The district was in a bind because of a down economy that left limited options for balancing the budget without a tax increase. Carstarphen had the right idea in targeting central administration. But trustees unwisely chose the wrong tool.
They rejected financial exigency, which essentially means that a district faces a financial emergency and therefore is legally permitted to take dramatic action, including breaking of contracts of administrators or other contract employees. Trustees, led by Vincent Torres, ordered Carstarphen to make job cuts through program changes.
Some employees slated for termination found jobs within the district; some resigned. One employee, Margarita Decierdo, hired by Forgione in 2008 as the district’s director of diversity and intercultural relations, appealed to the Texas Education Agency and won big. Decierdo was in the second year of a three-year employment contract with the district.
The TEA hearing examiner didn’t mince words in finding that the school board was wrong to terminate Decierdo’s contract as part of job cuts the district has made in recent months. But the district would have been within its legal rights to do so through financial exigency.
William Sterling Jr., the hearing examiner, wrote that the district acted “arbitrarily, capriciously and unlawfully when it applied its arbitrary and capricious program change reason for the discharge of Decierdo’s contract.”
In his recommendation, signed July 13, Sterling said the district could breach a contract only because of good cause, such as poor performance or financial exigency.
The examiner recommended that the board change its policies and keep Decierdo. The ruling could have statewide implications to other districts that downsize personnel in the manner that Austin did.
As for the Austin district, the next steps have yet to be decided, but all involve money. The one that seems to be taking shape permits the district to bypass the TEA and Sterling’s recommendation by working out a deal with Decierdo and her attorney; they have reached a tentative settlement. But it’s not a deal until trustees approve it. They are scheduled to make their decision Monday.
Perhaps those five trustees (four who still are on the board) who overruled Carstarphen might pause and reflect on this case — and what it cost taxpayers — the next time they decide to overrule Carstarphen on matters that fall within her authority. Micromanaging has consequences.
That would be worth the tens of thousands of dollars the district no doubt will pay to negotiate, settle or litigate this matter.