December 13, 2021 Summary

Summary of WLCSC Public Hearing for Superintendent Contract

Monday, December 13, 2021

HIGHLIGHTS: Restricting Content of Community Comments (5:01), Contract Renewal Language (5:18), Superintendent Salary (5:24), Superintendent Evaluation (5:41), Search Process (5:46)

5:00 – Karpick started the hearing on the superintendent contract. He asked that school board members and community members speak only about the superintendent contract. He explained that as required by Indiana code, the contract was posted 10 days prior to this public hearing. The school board must wait at least 7 days after the public hearing before they can vote on the contract and then vote to hire the new superintendent. 

5:01 – Xiaomin Qian is a parent in the school district. She spoke about the community survey and public forum that gathered input about the desired characteristics for the next superintendent. She noted that these opportunities for input were before the search began and said that there has been no community input since. Karpick apologized for interrupting and asked her to stick to the topic of the superintendent contract. Qian said that the superintendent search is very important to our community and said that if she is not permitted to speak at this meeting, then she would speak at the next meeting. Karpick repeated that the intent of the public hearing is only for comments about the contract. Springer explained that the superintendent contract, the notice, and the public hearing are all following new state law guidelines and that the only item that they are permitted to discuss at this public hearing is the contract. She invited community members to email the school board or to stay after the hearing to talk with them if they want to talk about other items. The General Assembly passed a statute in 2012 requiring the school board to post the proposed superintendent contract and then have a public meeting and allow comments from the public on the terms of the contract (IC 20-26-5-4.3). I’m not sure if this 2012 statute is the “new state law guidelines” that Springer is referring to, but the statute doesn’t seem to require the board to restrict the content of public comments at the hearing.

5:05 – Wenbin Yu is a parent of 4 children in the school district. He asked what market analysis the school board did to come up with the salary and other terms in the contract. He asked the school board to share the qualifications of the superintendent candidate and said that it is hard for the public to provide comments about the contract terms when the school board has not provided any information about the qualifications of the next superintendent. He asked why the school board rejected the other finalist, who is female, before negotiating the contract with the male candidate they are wanting to hire. He said that rejecting all the other applicants first isn’t a good way to start negotiations with the final applicant for an employment contract. Karpick interrupted and said that talking about the other finalist is not a comment about the contract. Yu asserted that he was talking about the contract and said that discussing the characteristics of the finalists is an important aspect of the contract. Karpick repeated that he could only allow comments about the contract itself in order to follow state statute. Karpick’s assertion that the statute restricts public comments at the hearing seems like a misinterpretation of the statute.

5:10 – Doug Masson is a parent of WL students and served on the school board 2015-2016. He was appointed to the board in 2015 to replace a member who resigned and then lost a close election for a school board seat in 2016. He did not run in 2018. He did run in the crowded 2020 election and was very close to winning a seat on the board. He is President of the West Lafayette Schools Education Foundation. Masson said that it seems like the intent of the General Assembly in requiring this public hearing was to put school board members in an uncomfortable position. He suggested that these hearings probably do put some downward pressure on superintendent salaries but they also make school boards justify all their spending. He said that he feels it is hard to know what salary to offer a superintendent. The West Lafayette Mayor only makes a salary of $105,000 and county government officials make even less than that. On the other hand, Indiana judges and prosecutors make $160,000. The average salary for Purdue’s top 100 employees is close to $350,000 and the Purdue President makes around $900,000. Mason asked if the superintendent is more or less valuable to our community than a judge, a professor, or a mayor? He said that he understands that the school board is proposing to pay the new superintendent $160,000. He said that setting the salary is a judgement call where many circumstances are relevant. This is a 24/7 job. Ideally the person will move into the community and put down roots. He said that we have the best school system in the state and that this position comes with high expectations and a lot of pressure. Masson said he ran but wasn’t elected to the board and said that it is the school board that is entrusted to make this decision. He hasn’t spent months thinking about it like the school board members have. School board members discussed school finances with the CFO and met with people who have expertise in superintendent compensation. Masson said that there are people in the community who make comments who are extremely confident that they know how to run the schools without putting in the work. Karpick seemed to give Masson a lot of latitude in how related his comments were to the terms of the contract.

5:15 – Amanda Hart is a Jr/Sr HS teacher and union president. She thanked the board for all their work and said that they did a great job with the contract. In comparison to other similar school corporations, the proposed salary is comparative or possibly even lower. She said that she doesn’t know everything about our school finances, but emphasized that she trusts the school board. I find it disappointing that union leaders trust the school board and the administration so completely. Rather than advocating for better working conditions for teachers, union leaders typically direct their public comments to other teachers and community members to show their support for the school board and administration.

5:17 – Marydell Forbes is a Jr/Sr HS teacher and was the union president last year. She said that we elected the school board members to do this job and we should trust them to be good stewards of public funds. She said that we don’t want an English teacher like her crunching the numbers and second guessing the school board decisions, but she said that she did look at the salary compared to other school districts and said that the salary looks competitive. Speaking to the school board, she said, “we trust you and we thank you in advance for doing your job.” The request that the community trust the school board to be good stewards of public funds and not second guess their decisions seems particularly tone deaf given the board’s recent poor financial decisions

5:18 – Troy Janes is a WL parent. He asked about the second paragraph of section 1.01 of the contract, which says, “This agreement will automatically renew at the end of each school year for a further term of three years unless either party notifies the other party.” Janes suggested that it is unclear what this means and said it could be interpreted as adding three additional years to the contract after each year which would quickly turn it into a lifetime contract. Alternatively, it could mean that the contract is renewed and starts over with a new three-year term each year. Janes said that he thinks that they meant to write that after the first three years the contract would be automatically renewed unless notice is given. He encouraged the board to clarify the confusing language in the contract before it is signed. He then noted that the board had less patience with the first two people who commented then they did with the next ones. After Janes concluded, Karpick asked Reiling to respond about the contract language. Reiling said that the state statute allows the board to extend the superintendent’s contract one time at the end of the first term and said that if they need to clarify the language in the contract, then they will. 

5:20 – Brady Kalb is a WL parent of 2 kids. He said that his comments are not directly about the contract and asked if that means that he will not be permitted to speak. Karpick said he can only speak about the contract so Kalb returned to his seat. 

5:21 – David Joest is a Jr/Sr HS teacher and is a union leader. He said that the proposed superintendent contract is similar to those of other districts. Joest said that he led the teacher contract negotiations this year for the union and said that his goal is for teacher salaries in WL to be the highest in the state. He said this wasn’t possible because of our lower level of student enrollment and other financial reasons. In comparison to other districts, the proposed superintendent pay seems to be at about the same relative position as our teacher pay is in relation to other districts. He watches and compares with large suburban districts in the Indianapolis area because that is where he grew up and said that if he were to seek employment somewhere else it would probably be there. These large suburban districts in Indianapolis pay both their superintendents and teachers more. But, relative to the rest of the state, the proposed superintendent contract and our teacher pay are comparable. He expressed his hope that this contract will allow us to retain a high quality superintendent. 

5:24 – Karpick said that was all who had signed up and opened up the discussion to the board members. Yin asked to speak. She said she prepared a powerpoint presentation to share but her computer would not connect to the projector and so she said she would just speak (after the hearing she posted her powerpoint presentation online, a link is above). Yin said that it wasn’t in the best interest of the community for the board to have rejected the other finalist, who she felt was a strong and more suitable candidate, before beginning contract negotiations with the candidate the rest of the board had decided to hire. Karpick interrupted and said that she needed to focus on the contract. Yin responded that her presentation was related to the contract. Karpick let Yin continue. She said that rejecting the other finalist hurt the board’s negotiating power as they crafted the contract. She expressed her wish to have seen the contract before it was given to the candidate and released to the public because she would have liked to have provided input. She collected 2021 superintendent salary and school district characteristics for Indiana districts and estimated a regression model to show that the salary is highly correlated with the number of students in the district (the R-squared is .69). The estimated model predicts a superintendent salary of $127,000 for a district of our size. She said that the remaining candidate’s current school district is even smaller than ours and said that his current salary is $127,000. She questioned why offering $160,000 was wise and stated that it was not necessary to offer so much to get the candidate to accept. She said that she thinks the others on the school board decided to offer $160,000 because that was Killion’s salary in his last contract. But, she noted that as recently as 2017 Killion’s salary was $137,000 and said that the raise to $160,000 reflected 14 years of experience leading our district and then she listed some of Killion’s achievements like getting the referendum passed. She also noted that Killion was a finalist in another superintendent search in 2015 which resulted in his raise to $137,000. However, Killion was not offered an automatic raise every year. Instead, his raises were offered by the school board in response to an outside offer and to reward/incentivize effort. In contrast, the proposed contract offers an automatic raise every year. She said that the proposed contract does not explain how the superintendent will be evaluated nor does it explain what warrants a raise. Yin said that she is concerned that the candidate is currently leading a district that is very different from ours. She noted that the candidate’s high school is smaller, much lower ranked, has lower test scores, does not prepare students as well for college, and has a homogenous student population with very few minority students and almost no English learners. She said the area in which our school district is most similar to the candidate’s school district is that both do very poorly in measures of student equity. She noted the candidate’s district’s low level of student participation in AP courses and said that WL rates of AP participation are 6 times higher. Witt interrupted to ask how what Yin was saying relates to the superintendent contract. Yin responded that the salary offered in the contract should depend on the qualification of the candidate. Karpick said she could continue. Yin concluded her comparison of the candidate’s district by saying that the set of colleges where students apply are very different. She believes that the candidate is a good leader but noted that he does not have a specific plan yet for many of the challenges we are facing. She proposed that it would be more appropriate to offer a lower “fair-market” salary which leaves room for large raises to provide incentive for performance. She proposed removing the automatic raise in the superintendent contract. Yin asked that teacher, student, and community member evaluations be included as part of the superintendent evaluation process. She said that the superintendent should be given specific metrics to improve like teacher compensation, staff appreciation, use of the Happy Hollow building, getting the referendum passed, increasing student enrollment, increasing student equity, and meeting diverse student needs. She proposed that the metrics which will be used in the superintendent evaluation be included in the contract. Last, Yin asked for clarification on the wording of the contract renewal and said that she agrees with Janes, the community member who spoke earlier, that the contract renewal language is confusing. I was impressed with Karpick’s restraint in letting Yin speak when it was clear that he did not like her message. Witt wanted to silence Yin, but Karpick permitted Yin to continue. I was very impressed with Yin’s data analysis and comparisons. Her proposal to offer a lower initial salary in combination with large performance-based raises or bonuses makes sense to me. It may be that the others on the school board are hesitant to offer a performance-based compensation package because they do not want to have to specify which metrics would be included in the evaluation; that would be publicly admitting that there are things which need improvement.

5:41 – Karpick said they do have evaluations every year and said that they are bound by state statutes in terms of how the renewal enters the contract. Karpick said Yin’s points are important, but said that they were already addressed during the interviews. He said that whoever is on the board during the superintendent’s term will be able to “steer that person in the right direction.” Springer said that from what Yin said, Yin thinks the salary of $160,000 is too high and asked her what she thinks is a fair salary. Yin responded that she would recommend a base of $145,000, which is more than a 10 percent raise above the candidate’s current salary and then would allow the board to offer generous raises depending on evaluations. Springer asked if Yin had any concerns about the benefits that are offered in the contract and Yin said that she just focused on the salary and didn’t do a comparison of the benefits offered with those of other Indiana school districts. Karpick said that he sent Yin a spreadsheet listing the benefits provided to the superintendents of some comparable districts. Yin questioned whether the districts Karpick listed were really comparable. Yin said the districts Karpick listed on the spreadsheet were all much larger than ours and the superintendents were more experienced. This was one of the best discussions I’ve heard in years of attending school board meetings. An exchange like this should happen before all important votes.

5:44 – Springer said that the previous superintendent, Killion, was evaluated every year and was offered a raise every year, but he turned down these offered raises for the first several years because of our district’s financial situation and his desire for the money to go to the teachers instead. Karpick confirmed that Killion chose not to take the offered raises. Marley said that when Killion was hired he was working as an assistant superintendent and was not a sitting superintendent and so his initial compensation reflected that. Yin replied that the $137,000 salary she referenced was from recent years, his starting salary might have been lower. My understanding is that Killion asked the school board to increase his deferred compensation in his retirement accounts rather than increase his annual salary because he did not like the optics of the superintendent getting a large raise. That may have been a smart public relations strategy given the school corporation’s poor financial situation when Killion was hired. However, Springer’s statement about Killion refusing offered raises seems misleading. In addition, Killion did take a large raise, from $137,000 to $160,000 in 2018. The next year he asked the board for authorization to fire first-year teachers at WLES and WLIS because of the school district’s poor financial situation. The school board authorized the firing. Over the next 4 months, 15 teachers (9 percent of the total) resigned, with many leaving to teach in other districts. 

5:46 – Sonata Chaterji, a WL parent, asked if she could speak even though she had not signed up before the meeting. Karpick told her that she was welcome to speak, but said that she needed to keep her comments to the topic of the contract. Chaterji asked if Karpick could explain how one signs up to speak. Karpick explained that there is a sheet at the door until the meeting begins and that anyone can sign up to speak. Chaterji apologized for not having signed up and said that the 5:00 pm start time for this hearing made it difficult for her to arrive early to sign up. Chaterji asked the school board to publicly share characteristics of the candidates’ current school districts and the candidates’ credentials. She asked about the finalists ability to work with diverse students from different backgrounds and at different ability levels. She asked if the school board has already selected who to hire. She said that her experience at Purdue is that when an individual is being considered for a faculty or administration position, they are invited to give a talk and meet with people. She asked if we will get to meet the finalists before the board selects who to hire? Karpick said that they have already selected who to hire but that it is confidential and said that in 7 days they will vote to approve the contract and then will announce who the new superintendent is. Until then, it is confidential. Karpick said that after their announcement, the new superintendent will meet the public. Chaterji asked that different stakeholders be allowed to evaluate the superintendent each year. A large fraction of our community works at Purdue and is used to a hiring process where a committee meets to determine which of the applicants to interview and then select finalists. The identity of the finalists is public information and they are invited to campus to meet with those who are interested and to give a public talk. There is nothing that prevents our school board from using a similar process. For this search, the school board decided to prioritize confidentiality and keep every stage of the search secret up until the new superintendent is announced.

5:49 – Austin said she has learned a lot from serving on the school board in the past year. She said that she has learned that the school board has three main functions. First is to sign off on contracts and the monthly accounts payable. Second is to set the strategic plan with the superintendent. Third is to supervise the superintendent, evaluate the superintendent, and when necessary, search for a new one. She said she understands that the process appears as though it is very opaque, but she assured everyone that the answers to the survey were considered carefully when writing questions for the interviews and when discussing the candidates. She said that the analogy with hiring at Purdue and hiring in public education is not accurate. She said that in higher education there is a lot of encouragement to move around, but in public education that is seen negatively and is perceived as being disloyal. Even though both are education searches, they are just not the same. The community is not frustrated that the process “appears as though it is opaque.” I think the frustration is that it has been an entirely secret hiring process. I think Austin is wrong in saying that public education searches are always kept confidential. At the December meeting, Lily Qiao, a WL parent, shared that our former superintendent, Killion, was publicly announced as one of three finalists in a superintendent search in South Carolina and received a large raise when he decided to stay. At the same meeting, Angela Janes, a WL parent, shared that our interim superintendent, Pettibone, was publicly announced as a finalist in a search in 2015. It seems that announcing the finalists to allow for community input is a common practice. 

5:52 – Karpick adjourned the hearing.

Location: Happy Hollow Building, LGI Room

Streaming: WLCSC YouTube Live Stream 

Attendance: 7 of 7 School Board Members (Yue Yin, Alan Karpick, Karen Springer, Bradley Marley, Thomas Schott, Rachel Witt, Amy Austin); Ross Sloat, Interim CFO; Stephen Ohlhaut, Assistant to the CFO; Robert Reiling, Jr., Lawyer

Audience:  4 school administrators, 4 union leaders/members from the Jr/Sr HS, 1 union member from WLES, 17 parents, and some reporters.

This is not the official minutes from this school board meeting. I am a parent of WLCSC students and my thoughts are given in italics. The official minutes are released after the approval of those minutes at the next school board meeting (1 month from now). Previous agendas, minutes, and audio recordings can be found at the WLCSC website.

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