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State board of ed. rules in favor of former superintendent Smith's executive team; BOE appealing decision in circuit court

By SARA NEWMAN

Staff writer

Members of the Maryland State Board of Education recently ruled in favor of two current Calvert school system employees, and one former employee, who were members of the Calvert County Public Schools executive team who appealed a decision of the local school board concerning their employment contracts, which were altered after the former superintendent left the school system.

Following the state board's decision, members of the Calvert County Board of Education have in turn appealed the case through the Calvert County Circuit Court, disagreeing with the state board's opinion.

The case began in July 2012. Robin Welsh, then deputy superintendent of Calvert County Public Schools; Kimberly Roof, an executive director of administration; and Deborah Pulley, an executive director of school operations, signed employment contracts with then-superintendent of schools Jack Smith. Those contracts were effective from June 1, 2012, through June 30, 2013, and stipulated that the employees' salaries would remain the same as they had been for the past two years: $152,500, $147,500 and $149,000, respectively.

Those contracts also stated the employees would be entitled to benefits consistent with those provided to the Calvert Association of Supervisors and Administrators and to include benefits regarding sick leave, and the employees were allowed to cash out unused annual leave upon leaving an executive team position.

After these contracts ended June 30, 2013, Welsh, Roof and Pulley were reassigned to new positions by then interim superintendent Nancy V. Highsmith, who assumed that position after Smith left.

Welsh became the principal of Calvert Country School, Roof assumed the role of director of student services and Pulley became principal of Mill Creek Middle School. Welsh and Roof maintain those current positions, though Pulley resigned from the school system soon after her reassignment.

Highsmith told the employees they would no longer have individual contracts, and those contracts would become part of the CASA bargaining unit scale, and they would not be able to negotiate the sale of unused sick leave or cash out unused annual leave, as stated in their prior contracts, according to the state board's opinion.

Members of the Calvert board of education claim they were unaware of the executive team contracts held between the employees and Smith and said because the contracts were signed with Smith and not the board, the provisions stated in the contract were not to be extended past the June 30, 2013, date.

“We find it unreasonable the local board's argument that, because Dr. Smith signed the contract, that only he was their 'employer,'” the Maryland board's opinion states.

The Calvert school board came to this decision in a 4-1 vote, with board member Tracy McGuire dissenting. McGuire wrote that the local board was aware that Smith entered into agreements with the employees, even if the local board never officially ratified the agreements, according to the state board's report. McGuire said in her dissent, if the agreements needed to be ratified by the local board, it was their responsibility to do so, according to the opinion.

The opinion states that an affidavit from Smith, dated Nov. 1, 2013, says the local board never requested that he obtain local board approval before negotiating employee contracts, though he briefed board members about them.

“Dr. Smith noted that the decision to enter into written employment contracts with members of the executive team was discussed with the local board prior to the execution of the first of those agreements in the 2009-2010 school year,” according to the report.

Members of that year's elected board included William J. “Bill” Phalen Sr., who was president of the board at the time and currently is running for re-election for next year's board; William “Bill” Chambers, who was vice president of the board at the time; and board members Eugene M. Karol, who is president of the current board and is also running for re-election; Rose Crunkleton; and McGuire.

The report continues, “According to Dr. Smith, as recently as May 9, 2013, the local board president was part of a discussion concerning compensation packages for executive team members.”

In his affidavit, Smith said local board members “approved the components of the compensation package and benefits that were identified in each Executive Team Member's employment contract beginning with the 2009-10 employment contract and ending with the 2012-13 employment contract,” according to the report.

“There may have been discussions, but some of them didn't get through,” Karol said in a phone interview Wednesday regarding the statements in the report. Karol said because the case is currently active, he could not provide additional insight.

The report continues to illustrate why members of the state board believe members of the CCPS school board “certainly must have known that Appellants would receive more than just a salary as part of their overall compensation.

“We conclude that the local board did approve Appellants' compensation packages, even if no formal vote was taken,” the report continues. “… The record suggests that the local board tacitly accepted the benefits packages during information sessions with the Superintendent and only decided in hindsight, once the matter of the Appellants' benefits became an issue, that they had never 'formally approved' those benefits.”

Members of the state board decided Welsh, Roof and Pulley were entitled to keep their former contract provisions, allowing them to cash out unused annual leave up to a year after having left the executive team, and can “negotiate” with CCPS as to compensation for unused sick leave.

In addition, members of the state board ruled in favor that Welsh, Roof and Pulley are entitled to the three-year salary continuation included in the CASA bargaining agreement to which they became a part.

“It was clear that some members of the board did not know what was happening at the highest level of staff,” Joe Chenelly, current Calvert school board member, said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It is not clear why they didn't know, but there's been a whole lot to wade through and digest and figure out. We're talking about a lot of money being spent as far as what's at stake, and we're in the midst of some very tight budgets.”

Chenelly said the local board of education decided to appeal the state board's decision because “it is important that we get this right.”

“We've decided to appeal the decision because these individuals appealed to the board of education, and we stand by our initial decision and believe it is correct,” Chenelly said.

Other board members and Andrew Nussbaum, of Nussbaum Law LLC in Clarksville, representing the Calvert County Board of Education, declined to comment on specific issues due to pending litigation.

snewman@somdnews.com