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Buyouts pay executives in Placer County to leave

Recent departures add up to more than $1 million
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Gold-plated giveaway of taxpayer dollars? Or fair compensation for an early departure from a high-level and high-risk post that hinges on the whims of a politically sensitive board? Severance packages and buyouts for some top local-government and school officials in Placer County have been hotly debated in recent years, starting with $500,000 the Sierra College board agreed to give departing President Kevin Ramirez in 2005. That has been followed over the past four years with a series of stormy-but-lucrative severance packages involving Roseville City Manager Craig Robinson, Colfax Elementary School District Superintendent John Ray and Auburn Recreation District Administrator Alain Grenier. Those four departures have cost more than $1 million that some argue could have been better spent in a time of dropping government revenues. Gordy Ainsleigh was on the Auburn Recreation District board when Grenier was sent on his way with a $118,000 buyout. Ainsleigh said he’d like to see a ceiling established on compensation, when a board and an administrator part ways. “It’s hard for me to figure out why a person needs more than $150,000, given that people out there are suffering,” Ainsleigh said. Four years after Ramirez’s retirement under pressure from the board, Sierra Trustee Aaron Klein said local governments need to get contracts with their CEOs under control. Klein’s complaint to the Fair Political Practices Commission over alleged campaign irregularities by Ramirez had precipitated the president’s departure. The FPPC ruled this months that the complaint had no validity. Klein said he voted against the initial closed-door vote on the Ramirez settlement because of costs the Rocklin school would have to absorb. The board has learned from the $500,000 payout, Klein said this week. The contract with current President Leo Chavez stipulates that the board can opt out of the pact at any time, with a fixed severance amount in place for the departing administrator. “The real problems are guaranteed contracts local governments give to administrators where the administrator can’t be fired unless a felony is committed,” Klein said. But Sierra Trustee Bill Martin said stipulated buyouts are a valuable part of contract agreements by administrators and board members. Buy-out clauses reflect the risks taken by an appointee in a career position that can often prove tenuous, he said. “People in lower levels of employment are protected by unions, and severance agreements,” Martin said. “But in senior-level positions, there’s an expectation that they accept the district authority to dismiss them – but with decent compensation.” Concern over hefty contract settlements reached the state Capitol this year. Two state legislators – Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-Santa Clara, and Assemblyman Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia – attempted to push through bills to prohibit school districts from entering into contracts that require buyouts of superintendents’ contracts in the event they are fired. Mendoza cited 13 recent buyouts and spending totaling $3.7 million in recent years to pay superintendents to leave. His bill called for demoting superintendents who have run afoul of a board. They would be kept on payroll, with the same benefits as regular employees, for the terms of their contract. If they blanched at the demotion, they would not be compensated for leaving. Mendoza’s contention was that the bill is needed to stop wasteful spending associated with superintendent buyouts that’s diverted away from pay for teachers, textbooks, tutoring or other vital needs. The California Taxpayers’ Association supported the bill, arguing that it’s important to limit pay for work performed to avoid waste of scarce taxpayer dollars. Wally Reemelin, president of the League of Placer County Taxpayers, said compensation arrangements can run from reasonable to “out of this world.” “It’s people giving out golden parachutes so if voters have any input, they should ensure that elected officials get cautioned about it or have them removed from office,” Reemelin said. Costly buyout language in contracts and other perks seem to creep up on even the most forthright of public officials, he said. “There’s got to be some moderation, particularly when a lot of people are wondering where their next rent check is coming from and are concerned about putting groceries on the table,” Reemelin said. The Alquist and Mendoza bills have stalled, with no indications they’ll be introduced again. Both the California School Boards Association and Association of California School Administrators were quick to oppose the buyout-ban proposals. Opposition also came from the powerful Los Angeles Unified School District, which in January provided a severance package worth more than $500,000 to departing superintendent Daniel Brewer. Bill Adams, a Roseville resident who has been following Robinson’s departure, said he doesn’t blame the former city manager for signing a buyout deal that will provide him with $390,000 over the next year. “I think most people in Roseville feel it’s a lot of money,” Adams said. “But they were foolish enough to let him go before his contract was up. If they hadn’t and removed him at the end of the contract, they wouldn’t owe him a dime.” ---------------------------------- Departure dollars $500,000 Sierra College President Kevin Ramirez 2005 $390,000 Roseville City Administrator Craig Robinson 2009 $118,000 Auburn Recreation District Administrator Alain Grenier 2006 $73,000 (Estimated) Colfax Elementary School District Superintendent John Ray 2009 --------------------------------------- Fast facts: Limits on golden handshakes California limits buyouts of superintendent contracts to a maximum of 18 months worth of compensation. A California School Boards Association survey, with 19 responses, showed 15 states had no compensation restrictions for school superintendents who are forced out. But Florida limits buyouts to one year, while Kentucky and Mississippi prohibit buyouts. Texas reduces state funding to a district if the board decides to buy out a superintendent contract and the amount exceeds one year of salary and benefits. - Gus Thomson