Trustees get les­son in mi­cro­manag­ing

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

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.

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