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Wake school board gives superintendent $600,000 in job protection from being fired

The (Raleigh) News & Observer logo The (Raleigh) News & Observer 10/21/2020 By T. Keung Hui, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

CARY

It would now cost $600,000 for the Wake County school board if it wanted to fire Superintendent Cathy Moore by buying out her contract.

The Wake school board on Tuesday unanimously approved a contract amendment that gives Moore an extra year of severance pay, for a total of two years, if she’s unilaterally terminated. Board members said it was matter of equity to have Moore’s contract match the buyout terms that were included in former Superintendent Jim Merrill’s contract.

“We wish to extend the buyout clause of her contract from 12 to 24 months, really in recognition of the experience that she has gained since being here in this seat,” school board chairman Keith Sutton said Tuesday before the vote.

Moore’s current annual base salary is $299,280 and she’s under contract through June 2023, according to a district spokeswoman. Sutton said that no decision has been made by the board yet about whether Moore will get a raise this year.

Contract become campaign issue

The vote comes two weeks before the election and has drawn complaints from several candidates who are running against the incumbents.

“This will not happen when I’m elected,” school board candidate Greg Hahn tweeted Tuesday. “This money could well have been allocated elsewhere! It’s time for change!”

Hahn is running for the southern Wake District 2 seat against board member Monika Johnson-Hostler and challenger Dorian Hamilton.

Moore was hired as superintendent in May 2018 to replace Merrill, who had unexpectedly resigned. She leads North Carolina’s largest school district and the nation’s 15th largest district, which has 160,000 students.

Providing equity for superintendent

Johnson-Hostler, who was chairwoman when Moore was hired, said it had been the board’s intention to include a two-year buyout in her original contract. Johnson-Hostler said it was a matter of equity to give Moore, Wake’s first female superintendent, the same buyout terms as Merrill.

But Johnson-Hostler said Moore declined and only asked for a 1-year buyout option.

“This was about her wanting this position, but also wanting to prove herself,” Johnson-Hostler said Tuesday. “I think the public has the right to know that’s how you entered this contract with Wake County Public Schools.”

Sutton said the board agreed to revisit the issue after Moore was hired. He said they had planned to approve the amendment in May or June. But then the coronavirus pandemic became the district’s primary focus.

The buyout wouldn’t apply if Moore voluntarily resigned. It also wouldn’t apply if the board fired her for cause.

“If the superintendent engaged in misconduct, which would never happen here, but if the superintendent engaged in misconduct or there was a pattern of serious performance issues, then the board is by law and under the contract could terminate for cause and wouldn’t have to pay any of that,” said school board attorney Jonathan Blumberg.

Blumberg said some superintendents don’t want buyout options so that the only way they could be fired is for cause. He said buyouts allow boards to terminate superintendents without going through an elaborate process.

The last time the Wake County school board used a buyout was in 2012, when it fired Superintendent Tony Tata, who got one year of severance pay. Sutton said Wake superintendents have always had buyout clauses since he joined the board in 2009.

Reaction on superintendent’s performance

Johnson-Hostler praised Moore’s performance as superintendent, especially during this “unprecedented year” of the coronavirus pandemic. Wake is reopening some schools for in-person classes on Monday for the first time since March 13.

“I’m not sure when you sleep because absolutely when you say ‘Every student, every day,’ you mean that about every single person that touches Wake County Public Schools,” Johnson-Hostler said. “And I think it’s important that the public knows that I felt it when we hired you and I still feel it today.”

The board has received a number of emails and public comments critical of Moore’s contract amendment. Some complained about the money and others complained about how school reopening has happened.

“Please right this mistake and do NOT give another penny of severance when there are so many other needs in the district during a pandemic,” Carol Bouchard wrote in public comments submitted to Tuesday’s board meeting. “I can’t even believe you’re considering this.”

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©2020 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

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