Taxpayers deserve better answer on contract extension

It’s no secret that an attractive salary and benefit package creates a pool of attractive candidates for any position, public or private. It can also assumed that the higher quality of candidate you get through that attraction, the better the result and performance.

Fort Madison Community School District Superintendent Dr. Erin Slater was awarded a one-year contract extension and a pay raise last week. With some troubling times and an uncertain economy, the district board should provide a better explanation.

Dr. Slater isn’t without accomplishments in her four years in the district. She was awarded an Iowa State Education Association TEAM award by the state’s teachers in 2018. She also ushered in a somewhat unprecedented teachers’ contract after the state gutted Chapter 20 and the bargaining rights of public employees in 2017. Most districts were in heated debates with teachers over contracts going forward.

In 2019, Slater found herself in a firestorm of sorts after a conflict arose with at least one coach about playing time for athletes. Her husband, Scott, was caught on tape berating head basketball coach Ryan Wilson at a camp in Quincy. She also suspended her husband from baseball games after he approached a dugout, against district athletic policy.

Last week, five Fort Madison Community School District board members approved a 1.6% pay increase for Slater and bought out seven of her 25 vacation days to create a salary for the next two years closing in on $198K.

Two board members, Brian Steffensmeier and Brad Menke, voted against the move. Menke didn’t give a reason for his nay vote, but Steffensmeier said the impact of the COVID-19 illness on the district’s budget is still unknown, and the timing isn’t the best for a pay raise.

But there’s something more here that just doesn’t sit well. Why is the district continuing to purchase vacation days at $2,000 per day?

When Slater first came to the district in the 2016-17 school year, she signed a contract for $170,000. But then-Board President Timm Lamb cited miscommunication between Slater, the district, and G. Tyron and Associates, regarding Iowa payroll deductions, as the reason the board approved buying out 15 days of Slater’s vacation the first year at $18,000. Since that time, the district has continued to buy seven vacation days per year at a rate of $2,000 per day.

The first year it took her salary from $170,000 to $188,000, a $1,200 per day buyback. That salary ranked her 23rd of 277 school districts listed on the Iowa Department of Education’s 2016-17 state’s superintendent salary report.

The report can be found at the following link: https://educateiowa.gov/documents/iowa-public-school-district-superintendent-information/2018/10/2016-2017-iowa-public

Of those 23 districts, Fort Madison had the second-lowest certified enrollment just ahead of Boone Community School District who had 2,048 and just behind Pella at 2,159. Pella’s superintendent made $192,933 with five years district experience and 26 years total experience. Boone’s superintendent made $197,660 in 2016 with seven years total experience.

That year the average total salary across the state was $147,825 with 7.6 years of experience in the district and 23.7 years overall experience. Slater was listed at 0 years of experience and 0 total years, but ‘total years’ of experience seems to reflect years of experience in Iowa. She came to Fort Madison from Illinois, where she was the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in DuPage County and has 25 years in as an educator, She’s clearly experienced, and she was certified. None of that experience was included as part of the Dept. of Education report.

In her second year, and each year since, she has been paid $2,000 per day for each of seven vacation days. In her new contract, which starts July 1, 2020, language shows the purchase of the vacation days is an incentive to keep Slater working more days each year in the district.

The base salary in the new contract is $183,669 and adding the $14,000 for the vacation days brings the total base now to $197,669, which has to be considered base because it becomes part of a 267-day work year. The contract says Slater’s work year is 260 days, but buying the vacation takes it to 267 days.

Simple math shows that compensation to be just over $740 per day all in, so where are we getting $2,000 per day, if the incentive is to get more work days?

If in fact the district increased the salary in 2016 due to errors in diligence on everyone’s part, that doesn’t mesh with the contract language on the buyback.

According to a 2018-19 American Association of School Administrators’ Superintendent Salary and Benefits report, the median superintendent salary across the country was $127,000 for a female superintendent and just over $128,000 for males in districts with enrollment between 300 and 2,499. Fort Madison’s is roughly 2,150.

That $127,000 is just base salary and doesn’t include additional compensation for things like retirement. Health benefits are outside the salary package because the district pays 100% of the Slater’s family medical and dental coverage.

And the survey is a national survey where only 52 Iowa superintendents responded, so it’s not perfect. FMCSD is also a relatively large district in comparison to others with that enrollment, and has challenges with facilities, open enrollment, and being a district with a relatively depressed economy.

So there are things here that would mandate additional compensation, again, to attract the best candidates to help solve some of those problems.

Dr. Slater was also passed over in 2019 for an extension and raise, as her review took place at about the same time media reports came out about the alleged interference with Wilson’s basketball program.

This isn’t laid at Dr. Slater’s feet. We all negotiate for the best packages we can and, she negotiated a solid contract, aside from not knowing what Iowa deductions for things like the Iowa Public Employees Retirement System (IPERS) looked like.

This is a board issue.

Steffensmeier is right to a degree voting against the raise. Republican tax cuts did result in a $300 million surplus last year so Iowa was in better shape than many states to stand up to the coronavirus’ financial hit. But it is still uncertain as to what impact to their budgets local governments and public schools will see.

A raise at this point, even with the pass in 2019, is questionable. But continuing to buy out vacation days at $2,000 per day is putting a burden on the district taxpayers that they shouldn’t be shouldering.

A better explanation for the buyback and the lofty salary ranking when considering enrollment, experience, and district economy, are both deserved by district taxpayers.

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The state saw more than 1,000 new positive coronavirus tests over the weekend and the first death in Des Moines County. We all want to get out and about and start moving again, but Iowa’s just now starting to see the real impact of this disease. It will spread further. Cracking the window to get a whiff of the economy may not be a bad idea, but Reynolds better be ready to slam it shut again if things go south quickly. – but that’s Beside the Point.

Chuck Vandenberg is co-founder and editor of Pen City Current and can be reached at editor@pencitycurrent.com

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