SableGate: Notes and a New Hypothesis

As expected, a close reading of the contracts between the Mt. Lebanon School District and its former Superintendent, Margery Sable, adds little to what we already know (or I should say, don't know) about the reasons for her departure. I do have a new hypothesis, though, about what happened here. Read on.

The contract under which M. Sable was hired provides not only that her salary after her first year in the position "shall be based upon the Board's evaluation of the Superintendent's performance . . . ." (we knew this; M. Sable didn't get a raise last summer, after completing her first year). The contract also provides that "[t]he Board shall evaluate, in writing, the perfomance of the Superintendent no later than June 30 of each year, using a mutually agreed upon method as a basis for said evaluation." What that means is: There may be a couple of "smoking gun" documents out there -- one of them containing the rules of evaluation, and a second one containing the evaluation itself. It's possible that the rules were included in the evaluation, leading us to one document in total. It's also possible that the two sides never even agreed on the rules for evaluating her performance -- meaning, no smoking gun. The absence of a performance review can be significant in itself; it's a real-life version of Arthur Conan Doyle's curious incident of the dog in the night-time. Curious, of course, because the dog didn't bark.

I kind of like the hypothesis that the dog didn't bark, that the disagreement between the Superintendent and the Board was so profound that they couldn't even agree on the standards to apply to her evaluation.

Among the "Recitals" at the beginning of the Separation Agreement (a "recital" being a lawyer's way of writing out the reasons for entering into the contract, such as "Party A desires to do business with Party B," and so on) is this: "Superintendent has performed the duties and obligations pursuant to the Contract." The "Contract" is the original employment contract (see above), and what that contract requires is that the Superintendent "perform the duties of Superintendent of Schools in a competent and professional manner subject to the policies and regulations of the Board and the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania." Ordinarily, as a lawyer I wouldn't be inclined to put much weight on something in a Recital -- most of this stuff is included as a formality -- but then again, I'm reluctant to write off its inclusion as mere sloppy work as a lawyer. It sure sounds like M. Sable was doing what she was hired to do: run a school district.

The recital, though, should be paired with the paragraph on Confidentiality:
The District, including individual board members, and Superintendent agree that the statement set forth in Exhibit "A" hereto [which says that "the Agreement was reached because of differences of opinion with respect to the administration of the School District."] shall be the sole communication as to the circumstances of Superintendent's separation. No further comment will be made by District, or individual board members, or Superintendent . . . and both parties agree to maintain the confidentiality of such information except as is otherwise required by law; provided, however, that the District and/or its representatives may explain and defend the terms and conditions of this Agreement provided: (a) a request for production of this Agreement has been made and granted pursuant to the Right-to-Know Law, as amended, . . . and (b) inquiries are directed to the District and or its representatives concerning the terms and conditions of this Agreement. However, any explanation and defense of this Agreement shall not include comments on the Superintendent's performance of the duties of her office.

I put that last phrase in italics, because it's not just strange; it all but broadcasts the point that "the Superintendent's performance of the duties of her office" was the reason for her "separation" from the District. It also turns the secrecy objection to the negotiation of the deal on its head; the language sure makes it sound like M. Sable bought the silence of the Board, not the other way around.

Now, one way to reconcile this confidentiality clause with the recital is to conclude that Board members are prevented from talking about what a wonderful job M. Sable was doing. Somehow, that doesn't strike me as the right explanation of what was going on. Here's a different hypothesis: Given the way the agreement is written, it strikes me as plausible that Board members were unbelievably unhappy with M. Sable's performance. So unhappy, in fact, that M. Sable threatened to pursue a defamation claim against the Board. Let's assume, for argument's sake, that such a claim would have been groundless. It's fair to assume nonetheless that it would have been extremely expensive and time-consuming to resolve through the courts, not to mention enormously embarrassing for Mt. Lebanon, its schools, and members of the Board. Instead, the two sides walked away from each other, M. Sable negotiated for inclusion in the agreement of the recital regarding performance of her duties, and the Board is forever silenced from ever disclosing what it was that M. Sable was so concerned about. M. Sable can go on to her next job with her reputation intact. Mt. Lebanon takes a serious one-time hit to its reputation but avoids having its School District dragged through the mud for the two to three years that a defamation suit would have occupied. If I'm a member of the School Board, I can see the logic in that. As a taxpayer, I'm not thrilled with it, but I can sort of see the logic, too. Of course, not all of the loose ends are tied up. We're still left to wonder what it is, precisely, that is so explosive that its revelation would be (let us suppose further) career-ending for M. Sable. But that's just gossip; the hypothesis, if it proves out, explains both the Board's agreeing to the separation, and its secrecy.


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