Trouble in Paradise

This entry may not be compelling for all of you who don't live in the South Hills. But wait: If one of the problems facing Pittsburgh is citizen complacency about what's wrong (and what's right) about the region, then here's a little example of someone standing up and making a compelling case that the Old Guard needs to be held accountable. Mt. Lebanon resident David Franklin has given me permission to post the text of his recent letter to the Mt. Lebanon School Board concerning the Board's unexplained giveaway of more than $500,000 to the recently-hired and now-departed Superintendent.

Members of the Board:

I trust this won't be the first or last correspondence you receive this week regarding the departure of Dr. Sable. Unfortunately, I am forced to write this email with little or no information regarding the facts of her departure or what appears to be an exorbitant buyout. I'm lacking this information because the School Board has elected to throw municipal government backwards about 100 years to a day when decisions were made without public meetings or the input of the residents.

First, I believe it insults the intelligence of the residents of Mt. Lebanon to state that Dr. Sable has tendered, and the School Board has accepted, her resignation. Resignations, particularly after less then two years of service, do not typically result in $400,000+ severance payments, six (6) years of full health care, compensation for unused vacation and sick days and legal fees.

Let me state at the outset that if there are legitimate personal reasons which dictate that the circumstances of her departure be kept confidential, you have only fueled the fire by informing your constituents that it was due to "different views concerning the administration of the School District." Different views can certainly be discussed openly and rationally - in the proper forum - before a decision is made to pay a half million dollar severance.

If Dr. Sable's views were so inconsistent with that of the elected School Board (and thus, presumably inconsistent with the majority of the residents that you are duty-bound to represent), it would seem that an eventual termination would have been proper and warranted, and would not have involved such a severance package. For example, I assume that Dr. Sable's contract contains provisions which would permit the School District to terminate her "for cause". "Cause" would include such things as failing to take direction from the Board, insubordination, violation of the law or any conduct, act or omission which, in the good faith determination of Board, would have a material adverse effect on the business, goodwill or reputation of the School District. Rarely - if ever - do employment contracts allow for severance payments or buyouts when an employee is terminated for cause. Therefore, I certainly hope that the School Board would have taken advantage of such a provision in Dr. Sable's contract if her conduct was truly out of line. If such a provision was not included in the contract, the role of the solicitor should be closely examined. Someone was asleep at the switch.

However, in light of the absolutely outrageous severance package, the residents are left to presume that Dr. Sable was dismissed without cause. There can be no other explanation. The deal is too rich and the method in which it is being presented to the community is too shady. Perhaps I'm most concerned that the School Board found itself in such a weak bargaining position that it agreed to this severance package for an employee that it had already deemed to be unsatisfactory. Severance payments made in conjunction with a termination without cause rarely afford an employee with a compensation package equivalent to - let alone better than - that which she would have received had she remained employed. One year's salary with benefits, perhaps. But all of her remaining salary (with no apparent duty to mitigate), benefits for the next 6 years, credit for unused vacation and sick days and legal expenses? That's simply too rich. What did the School Board do or not do - either when the original contract was negotiated or in the last 18 months - to wind up in such a horrible bargaining position?

We are again left to hypothesize as to what may have led to this expensive decision. If the best explanation the Board can offer is "different views" then my response is simply, "Too bad." The Board presumably had an understanding of Dr. Sable's experience, mission, agenda and program for the District when she was hired. In other words, the Board should have had a complete understanding and appreciation for her "views" when it negotiated and signed a long term contract. Anything short of this complete understanding is both fiscally and professionally irresponsible. If Dr. Sable's "views" later turned out to be not as advertised or something different than what the nine members of the School Board anticipated, I believe the Board has a similar professional and fiduciary obligation to work through it. I believe that I am in the healthy majority when I say that there aren't too many differences of opinion that are worth the buyout that the School Board approved last night - particularly when the community's first notice of the issue came after the damage had already been done.

Eventually, and preferably before it is too late, this School Board will realize that these dollars are real. The half million dollar package being paid to Dr. Sable may eventually be dwarfed by the cost of locating and compensating her replacement. If the School Board elected to pay a severance to Dr. Sable rather than face a frivolous lawsuit following her termination, then shame on you. Shame on you for failing to appropriately document her poor performance over the last year and a half (if that's truly what led to this) so that any such threats would be purely that and no more. Moreover, if the documentation was in place, shame on you for allowing yourselves to be taken hostage and using our tax dollars as ransom money. If you don't stand up for something, you'll far for everything. Further, I trust that the School District has adequate employer liability insurance coverage, which would have likely covered any such claim from Dr. Sable.

I was reluctant to write this email without having all of the facts. However, since I can't "un-ring" the bell and reclaim what the School Board has already given away, I sat back and tried to evaluate the events from all sides. This email represents the assumptions and conclusions that I have developed. I concede some may be wrong, but I also believe that others are right on target. Perhaps most unfortunate is that I am left to assume that you had it right and Dr. Sable had it wrong. This is particularly troubling because many in the community have expressed great satisfaction with Dr. Sable's performance and her goals.

Regardless, I am certain that any sort of respect and deference to the taxpayers during this process was and is lacking. In making this decision, the School Board has embarked on what will likely be a $1 million patching up project. This is money that will not be spent on improving our now flat test scores, special education programs, computer science and technology initiatives, character-building athletic programs, facilities and countless other items that deserve our attention and funding. As a lifelong resident of Mt. Lebanon and a Mt. Lebanon graduate, I can assure you that our School District is no longer head and shoulders above the rest. While we continue to produce excellent students on a somewhat consistent basis, we continue to take pride from national awards received in the mid-80s and early 90's. We can no longer be considered a leader in education when other schools in Allegheny County are doing better. Further, we know from our recent School District Report Card:

** Nearly 10% of all 11th graders are performing below the basic requirements for Math and Reading skills.

** The percentage of 6th graders performing in the below basic range for writing (11.9%) nearly doubles the percentage of those performing in the advanced range (6.3%).

** The percentage of disabled and economically disadvantaged 5th-11th grade students performing at the below basic level in nearly every subject is somewhat alarming, ranging from 12-46%.

Like many taxpayers, I want to know more about what led to Dr. Sable's resignation and the decision to award her a complete windfall in the process. If the Board has negotiated away the ability to share these details with the taxpayers by making her severance agreement confidential then we are left to use our own good judgment when considering your collective role in the administration of this school system. Unfortunately, even if you were 100% correct in your decisions, your last decision to keep it confidential may be the worst possible mistake. If you were right in the decision to terminate Dr. Sable, the facts would have stood on their own merit. Please understand that I have never been one to criticize the thankless efforts that each of you has agreed to assume in performing this service for the community. However, in this instance, I am afraid you have fostered an environment in which most residents will now question all future decisions.

Respectfully,

David P. Franklin

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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