A contract between public school boards and the superintendents is typically a term of three years nationwide. These contracts usually include a buyout provision should the district find it necessary to terminate the contract for reasons ranging from unsatisfactory performance to violations of the negotiated contract.
Typically, these buyouts cost districts recompense of annual salary, plus the salary of years remaining on the contract. Recent superintendent buyouts have cost New Mexico school districts upwards of $300,000 per occurrence.
Should it become necessary for a district to terminate and buy out the contract of a superintendent, the district must then incur the expenses associated with finding another candidate — a search that includes nationwide recruiting by a headhunting agency, related travel expenses, compensation of personnel involved in the search, etc.
This process comes at considerable cost to taxpayers and propagates a system that may overlook the many qualified individuals who are ready and able to lead our school districts and have proven their loyalty to their communities through years of service.
It’s important to remember that superintendents are school district employees, as are teachers, custodians, coaches and related service providers. Yet, unlike these annually contracted district employees, superintendents are awarded a three-year contract with their job performance yet unproven.
This should give taxpayers pause. Contract employees, such as teachers, bear the expectation of annual renewal based on satisfactory performance, despite the fact that they may have years of proven competence and loyalty in their area of employment. Nor are these employees subject to buyouts should they fail to meet the obligations of their contract.
In the interest of equity, superintendents cannot and should not be exempt from the requirements assigned to every other district employee. If a superintendent is truly accomplished, he or she should have no doubt in his or her ability to get his or her contract renewed year to year like every other employee.
Why reward unsatisfactory performance?
The buyout of a superintendent’s contract is not a common occurrence. Typically it occurs under conditions of failure to meet the terms of their contract, evidence of incompetence or impropriety, or violation of district mandates.
The question is, in cases like this, why are we rewarding such individuals for unsatisfactory performance? If we as educators hold our employees and our students to the highest standards of behavior, why is there one person on the payroll who gets an extended contract — sight unseen — and compensation to soften the blow once he or she is terminated for failure to meet the terms of behavior set by the employer?
The money spent on recruiting agencies and buyouts could be diverted to the training and mentoring of local educators who aspire to serve and lead our school districts; there are thousands of them out there.
By placing superintendents on annual contracts, school districts are no longer forced to excuse and insulate the consequences of poor performance and bad behavior simply because the process of buying out a contract is too cumbersome and expensive. It would allow school boards to observe and monitor this high-level employee, while retaining the option to renew or renegotiate the contract as the district sees fit.
School boards have the right to expect individuals who are granted such responsibility (accompanied by such high salaries) to be held to account to perform their job to the highest capacity. This process possesses the additional benefit of refining the applicant pool to attract only those candidates who reflect the highest levels of proven leadership and who are supremely confident in their ability to perform to high standards, thereby qualifying themselves to negotiate additional terms or time to their contracts.
Additionally, by offering one-year contracts to superintendent candidates, boards of education have a greater opportunity to observe and recruit the many highly qualified individuals right in their own back yard who could serve in such a capacity. By hiring these individuals, school districts never have to wonder if they are making a successful hire; these local candidates have already proven their leadership and competence within our communities.
Stop looking outside New Mexico
Our schools deserve to have employees who are held to the highest standards of integrity and performance. They also deserve to have a governing body that is characterized by equity and a willingness to identify the employees who are ready and qualified to serve our communities as demonstrated by their years of exemplary service.
It’s time to stop looking outside of New Mexico for solutions to our problems and time to divert our effort and funding to local recruiters and local candidates. Its time to stop rewarding bad behavior within our districts and allow school boards to regain control of their hiring procedures, finances, and contract negotiations.
Morales, a Democrat, represents District 28 in the New Mexico Senate. Martinez, a veteran educator in the Albuquerque Public School district, education activist, and parent, works to contribute to the development of statewide policy that will create equitable education outcomes for all students.