What doomed DeKalb school chief search: Job security.

The AJC continues to examine the superintendent search in DeKalb schools and why all three finalists withdrew.

In looking at e-mails, the AJC found that the deal breaker for a North Carolina finalist came down to job security. Lillie Cox of Hickory, N.C., wanted due process and severance. DeKalb may have an aversion to generous severance packages as it’s faced public criticism for its payouts to departing superintendents.

Residents were aghast to learn in 2004 that the controversial Johnny Brown left with a $410,000 payout after two years on the job. And indicted school chief Crawford Lewis left with a tidy sum when he was fired a year ago, at least $85,000, four months of his $255,000 annual salary, plus benefits.

I think that school boards are in a hard place. Candidates want salary and severance terms that most residents consider far too lush, especially given the economy. But the AJC story notes that market conditions favor the candidates since so many school systems are now searching for new school chiefs.

According to the AJC story:

Lillie Cox of Hickory, N.C., wanted due process, or the promise that if fired for cause she would have time to go before the school board and respond to the charges against her. Cox withdrew after it appeared the board was not willing to give her the job protection, and after details about negotiations were made public. Cox accepted another job this week in North Carolina for less money but more security.

DeKalb wanted flexibility to fire Cox “for any good and sufficient reason” without having to guarantee her severance; Cox was unwilling to sign onto what her attorney called an “at-will contract.”

Richard A. Schwartz, who represented Cox during negotiations, said DeKalb’s expectations were out of step with industry standard, and warned the board it would have a hard time negotiating with other candidates if unwilling to budge on the termination issue.

“Unless you have someone who is desperate for a position, or is rehabilitating themselves after a prior bad exit, you will be hard-pressed to find a strong candidate who is foolish enough to leave a secure position, move their family and take a contract which provides absolutely no job protection,” he wrote in an April 17 email to the district’s lawyers.

On April 23, Cox withdrew from contention after several attempts to negotiate and after details about her contract demands were leaked to the public. Monday, she was hired by Alamance-Burlington Schools, a North Carolina district where she worked previously. There she’ll earn a base salary of $175,000 compared to the $275,000 offered by DeKalb. Cox’s new contract contains due process rights.

In emails, it appears the board wanted at least two paths to sever ties with Cox, a “convenience” clause, which would allow the board to fire her for no reason with a 12-month severance payout, and another that allowed the board to fire Cox with cause, and pay nothing. Cox’s attorneys wanted to better define the reasons she could be fired under that provision, and to guarantee her a due-process hearing before the board.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

31 comments Add your comment

justjanny

May 9th, 2011
10:28 am

Me thinks I s mell a setup to hire clewis’ mouthpiece, Ramona Tyson as the super. Who else would blindly do as PWomack and friends bids?

chillywilly

May 9th, 2011
11:10 am

It appears that Lillie Cox wanted a sweetheart deal to do nothing. She was not qualified to be superintendent of Dekalb Schools. Good move, Dekalb Schools.

Dr. John Trotter

May 9th, 2011
11:20 am

Lillie Cox’s desire for a due-process hearing as a big time superintendent was demonstrative of her amateurish thinking. The big time (or even little time) superintendents don’t get these type hearings. They don’t get job security; they get the big bucks. School boards hate due process hearings even for teachers; they certainly aren’t going to “give” an appointed superintendent this “right” to exercise when they get ready to fire him or her. I didn’t know if she was really this shallow in her thinking or was this whole “security” thing just a ruse because she didn’t really want to come to DeKalb? We’ll probably never know.

Roach

May 9th, 2011
11:26 am

Could also be a lack of confidence. If you are a strong performer, in a seller’s market, even if you lose one job you can get another, so no worries, and the step up to a much larger school system just opens that many more doors for you. But if you doubt that you are up to the challenge, and think that the exit might be messy, damaging your reputation and future prospects, then you withdraw, and look for a challenge more to your measure.
I think these agents may also be unrealistic in what they are telling their clients. An outsize contract should be paired with specific performance standards, or else you find yourself in Georgia Tech’s position, with a weak performer who you can’t afford to fire. Ouch.

justbrowsing

May 9th, 2011
11:42 am

All good points. One might consider that she could have been ready to make the changes so many Dekalb teachers have called for. That would certainly step on some toes and would not win her a whole lot of friends- but- it could have been the change that was needed. Lets just face it- “good amd sufficient cause” could all boil down to politics. I do not blame her. “At will” firings in the private sector don’t damage a professional ’s career to the extent that it does a teacher’s. That needs to change.

catlady

May 9th, 2011
11:42 am

What person in their right mind, seeing the political mess that is Dekalb County BOE, would not expect to be able to at least hear the charges of why she is being dismissed as supt? Especially if that supt is serious about cleaning up the mess, the graft, the nepotism? Unless she does nothing, within a month she would have fallen out of good graces because she was not willing to “go with the flow” and continue allowing incompetent idiots to suck the air and the money out of the classrooms!

Sorry, Dr. T., but I differ with you on this one, especially in regards to Dekalb County Schools!

thomas

May 9th, 2011
11:47 am

What’s wrong with asking for anything and everything in the negotiation process? Why are some people so negative about everything?

Cassie

May 9th, 2011
12:16 pm

The emphasis on job security as the deciding issue rings a bit false….judging from her track record, Cox would have left the DCSS superintendent position within two years anyways!

HaHaIToldYou

May 9th, 2011
12:41 pm

This woman was well within her rights to ask for protection. DeKalb is so crooked and can’t be trusted. I don’t blame her for wanting to make sure she was covered. Catlady is right. Once you don’t flow with their plan, DCSS will get you by any means necessary; including changing your written statement. But all of this is a part of the plan to keep inexperienced Ramona Tyson at the helm because they can manipulate her.

Rob

May 9th, 2011
12:41 pm

Has the AJC come clean on which board member illegally leaked these contract negotiation details a few weeks ago?

ABC

May 9th, 2011
12:51 pm

I have two questions:
1. What exactly is considered due process? That they have to inform her why she’s being fired? Or that she has a way to fight it? If it’s the former, I don’t see an issue. If it’s the latter, I sure do.

2. I’m with Rob. I know about protecting sources and all, but this really shouldn’t have been leaked. I’m not saying she was the best person for the job, but surely she deserved some privacy in negotiating a contract? If not, why not?

Dr. John Trotter

May 9th, 2011
1:04 pm

@ Catlady: I don’t know that we differ on this; I am just saying that no large school board will agree to this, and Cox was naive in her thinking if she actually thought that the DeKalb Board of Education would agree to it. Admittedly, the DeKalb School System is a complete mess!

another comment

May 9th, 2011
1:23 pm

Sorry but in the Private Sector it is called Golden Parachutes. That is what Executives who come in and clean house get, to ensure that they can come in and clean house. No one is going to come in and then be left with $400 a week in unemployment and a dysfunctional board trashing them to the media. No way!!!

Shannon, M.Div.

May 9th, 2011
1:24 pm

I don’t blame Cox at all, and I’m happy for her that she found a school board willing to give her the comfort of reasonable security. A nebulous, ill-defined “fired with cause” clause is crazy given the political nature of the appointment.

I think people are expecting that she wanted something horribly unreasonable, like a huge golden parachute. That doesn’t seem to have been the case.

It’s like the teacher tenure issue. When people think of tenure, they think of college prof tenure for academic freedom. It is almost impossible to fire a college professor with tenure, and this is because they need that protection to do their job well (as it often involves speaking truth to power, so to speak).

But K-12 tenure isn’t anything like that. It just means that there is a process to go through when firing a teacher. It’s not at all impossible to fire a teacher. It’s hard, and it should be hard, because K-12 teachers with tenure have been with the system a couple of years, have been observed, and presumably were vetted. In an occupation where you are required to sign a contract every year, it’s reasonable for that contract to have provisions on both sides.

I see this situation like that: people think Cox wanted guaranteed money, when she really wanted guaranteed due process if fired. From a high-profile, explosive political situation… imagine that.

Moving Fast - right out of here

May 9th, 2011
1:56 pm

She will be happier in NC. DeKalb is a huge mess. I agree that some job security should have been provided so that she would have had the authority to come in and do the hard work that no one in DeKalb wants to do (The SCHOOL BOARD)or prefers to ignore (the SCHOOL Board). The house cleaning at the central office (The PALACE) needs to take place. We have people there making great salaries and the contribute nothing to the education of DeKalb’s students. THE BOE doesn’t have the backbone to discipline their own members, the selfishness to refuse to create an ethics code and the incompetence to manage an out of control workforce and budget. Protection – she should have asked for an armored tank to get to and from work.

catlady

May 9th, 2011
2:14 pm

Ok, got it, Dr. T. It was not reasonable for her to expect that it would be granted, but she sure would have needed some forum to hear the charges against her. Just another example of how DCSS does not want anything changed in any substantive way; it is not broken in the school board’s eyes.

reader

May 9th, 2011
2:43 pm

What doomed the county? The county was already doomed.

BlahBlahBlah

May 9th, 2011
3:03 pm

The fact that she took a job for $100,000 less a year tells me she was never qualified for this job anyway. No big loss.

BillM

May 9th, 2011
3:17 pm

Dekalb is a mess. No good candidate is going to come to Dekalb without good protection. Protection is leverage when it comes time to negotiate severance.
The real issue is the leak. It show the dysfunction on the board and the hidden agendas. If Cox had come to the mess that we call DCSS, how many other issues would be leaked to the press when someone powerful did not get his or her way?
Keep it up DeKalb and Ramona what’s her name will be your only choice.

lyncoln

May 9th, 2011
3:20 pm

I have no problem with Cox’s desire for a forum to understand (and respond to) reasons she might be let go.

To turn the discussion to a related direction. Isn’t the ‘forum to argue against termination’ what they wish to remove from teacher’s contracts? Since, some claim it is too difficult to remove an ineffective teacher since you have to have documentation, and hearings, etc. Apparently it’s very reasonable for a superintendent to find such hearings and documentation to be an absolute necessity, but it makes it too difficult to remove teachers if we allow them the same clauses in their contract.

Or am I misunderstanding and there is some further difference between what the Cox hoped for vs. what teacher’s have?

Independent

May 9th, 2011
3:55 pm

So now Dekalb is back to its starting point…

Shannon, M.Div.

May 9th, 2011
3:59 pm

Lyncoln, I believe you’re right on.

Rather than removing a forum to argue against termination for teachers, I think it should be present in *all* jobs. In some states, that’s the case. But this is a very, very red state, a very pro-business state… and a right-to-fire state. If you want to think about the differences between a state run by Republicans and one run by Democrats, this is one.

Teacher Reader

May 9th, 2011
4:21 pm

I didn’t have issue with the due process that she was asking for. I had an issue with her as a candidate. Looking at her vita, one could imagine that she would not be in DCSS for her 3 year contract. She also was never in a position long enough to see the long term effects of anything that she did. Short term effects are great, but what really happened when she did X? I believe that she would have been a great person to replace Beasley with and put her over the curriculum. She wasn’t ready to do what needs to be done here. We really need someone at the tail end of their career or someone who cares more about children than how they will look on the outcome of cleaning house, given the board members that the residents of DCSS keep electing.

Fletch

May 9th, 2011
5:04 pm

Yeah – reason 12,698 that I would never send my kids to public school in or around this city. These school boards, and counties as well, are stocked with people I wouldn’t let in my house much less steer the welfare of my children. It is really hard for me to think that more funding for education would make any difference whatsoever – it will just wind up in the pocket of a superintendants brother-in-law for installing a $80,000 light fixture or something. Is anyone accountable for anything anymore?

Fletch

May 9th, 2011
5:06 pm

PS – do you realize how poorly regarded a school system is when candidates withdraw from consideration for a $300k/year position? Wow folks…I would put up with a lot for 300/year…

dteacher

May 9th, 2011
6:17 pm

@Teacher Reader, ChillyWilly, and Blah Blah Blah

Where is this qualified,experienced,and altruistic individual? I’m curious.How have you felt about our former physical education teacher with a sketchy command of the English language-and an even sketchier one of ethics and the law or about someone with limited educational experience who is exploiting the situation to pad her retirement?

I still don’t see what was so unreasonable about Cox’s requests. Given SACS’s recommendations, it would seem that the superintendent would have to effect a change that the BOE might try to sabotage-as they did with Johnny Brown.

Ed

May 9th, 2011
7:07 pm

When you thiknk about it, we really have just 3 requirements for a superintendent: ethical, competent, and trusted.

I don’t know enough to judge Ms. Tyson on her ethics, but I’ve ready plenty enough on her previous DCSS work to question her competence, and, justified or not, absolutely no one in a senior leadershop position in DCSS is now trusted by hte community.

We MUST have someone from outside the community. I don’t know if we need to pay him or her more than a quarter million dollars (!!) a year, but we do need to give them autonomy to not be undermined by the Friends & Family (& Fraternity, Sorority, & Congregation) for 3-5 years if we ever want to see things cleaned up.

Exteacher

May 9th, 2011
7:49 pm

Wow. All you penny pinchers out there! My wife works for a bank and she got all Cox asked for and more the last time she job hopped and more. Capable people get big offers and perks because sometimes they can actually do the job. If you actually want some one to come in and clean up what is basically the outcome of years of abuse and chicanery you better get out your wallet. Nothing could possibly prepare an individual for the level of what is happening in Dekalb (or ATL) and someone who is willing to do the hatchet work for 2-3 years at a big salary and no fear is probably what we actually need right now. We do not need a person who has a vision for students- we need a person who has a vision for cleaning house so we can get to the place where we can begin talking about students again. Our district is such an embarrassment.

Ernest

May 10th, 2011
7:53 am

Why was Dr. Brown considered ‘controversial’? When you consider his accomplishments during his short tenure, he actual got a lot done.

Regretfully too many people don’t understand contract law. Looking at athlete contracts in baseball and football would be good analogies. Baseball players sign fixed contracts for a term. It becomes a crap shoot, if they don’t accomplish based on their expectations of the owner, they still get paid. If the owner wants to ‘break’ the contract before it is completed, they must negotiate a buy out (unless the player is traded). Football players sign a term contract with an upfront bonus payment however the term is renewable each year. If they do not perform, the team can cut the player however the player already received the bonus payment.

Superintendent contracts currently are like baseball player contracts. If either party wants to end it before the term expires, it must be negotiated. The situation with Dr. Brown was new for DeKalb and as a result, they are perhaps being overly cautious. Given Cox was asking for an annual rollover of one year, it would be fair for an early termination (unless something illegal was done) to be 12 months.

mitch

May 10th, 2011
4:43 pm

First crime: A school district with 100,000 students and a billion dollar budget should have three or four people in place who are ready to take over the job of Superintendent. It will take an outside person at least three to five years to get to know the culture and evalutate the players.
Crime two: Hiring a “search firm” and going way out looking for Mr.or Ms. Right.. Look around. It just ain’t gonna happen.

Ole Guy

May 10th, 2011
6:07 pm

That perpetual search for job security, at all levels of the employment spectra, is a major factor in what’s killing job prospects. While we are in (what’s come to be labeled) a jobless (economic) recovery, the jobs are out there; albiet the job security aspects (so common in previous generations’ “cradle-to-grave” scenario) are probably a thing of the past, no longer even on the distant horizon of the employment market, thanks to such inglorious programs as NAFTA, and the like, which were shoved down our necks by a Congress (Republica/Democrat…what the hells the difference?) with absolutely no footing in the real world.

Back to the job market: Contracting, at all levels of the employment spectrum, is probably going to be the “new wave” of employment. Job security???…no way!!!

Mitch brings forth a viable point which reflects directly on my drum roll…no one is really in charge of the school system. The kids and parents do/demand pretty much as they please while administrators hunker in their shells of “job security”, not wishing to piss off the wrong people. As for the law makers…well, forget about any reasonable “guidance” from them. The ONLY, repeat ONLY group capable of running the educational system is the teacher corps. Unfortunately, this very group does not seem to wish to “stick their collective heads” out from the ruse of job security.