For two years in a row, the Palo Alto school board made a "mistake," board President Terry Godfrey said, when it approved pay increases for Superintendent Max McGee in closed session -- outside of public view -- violating both his employment contract and state law.
Under the Brown Act, the California law that guarantees public access to meetings of local government agencies, employment contracts for senior executives must be ratified in open session at a regular meeting and reflected in the minutes. The Brown Act also bans discussion of or action on the compensation of top executives in closed session.
McGee's contract also requires the Board of Education to approve any salary increases or contract extensions in open session at a regular meeting "so that the public remains informed about the superintendent's current salary and contract term."
The district paid McGee $270,416 his first year in the district, in the 2014-15 school year. (Although his base salary was $295,000, he could not leave his previous job until later, resulting in fewer total work days.) Under his contract, he was scheduled to be paid $300,900 in 2015-16; the next year, $306,918; and this year, $313,056.
McGee told the Weekly he received his contractual raises the last two years. This year, with the district working to make up for a multimillion dollar budget shortfall, he did not ask for a raise, he said. He recently announced that he is planning to retire when his contract expires in 2018.
Annual closed-session evaluations of McGee were listed on agendas for school board retreats in both June 2015 and June 2016, but there is no record of open-session action in either the district-compiled minutes nor in the video recording of those meetings.
In July, before the district had itself reviewed the minutes and videos, board President Terry Godfrey said it was unclear if it was a failure on the board's behalf or simply a "record-keeping issue," but that she had been unable to find any "definitive record of us making that approval in public." (Godfrey was on the board at the time but not yet serving as president.)
This week, she acknowledged the board made a "mistake" and said the board will take a retroactive vote in open session at an upcoming meeting in September.
Godfrey, who first learned of the board's failure from the Weekly, said she did not consult with the district's attorneys for advice, given the fact that "once it was clear we couldn't find a record of having done it, it seems we need to remedy that error," she said.
The district also recently violated a provision of the Brown Act that took effect on Jan. 1, 2017 requiring that the details of executive pay increases be orally announced at a public meeting prior to a vote. Gov. Jerry Brown signed this provision into law in 2016 in the wake of a scandal over the misappropriation of public funds in by the city government in Bell, California, with the goal of making high-ranking public officials' pay more transparent.
No such announcement was made when the school board approved, in open session on May 9, a contract with the district's new assistant superintendent for human resources, Karen Hendricks. Her starting salary is $209,200, plus additional stipends for master's and doctorate degrees and a $450 monthly car allowance, according to her three-year contract.
Approvals have not yet taken place for other new district hires announced this summer, including Assistant Superintendent of Strategic Initiatives and Operations Yolanda Conaway, whose appointment was effective July 3. She will be paid $196,063 plus stipends for degrees and a car allowance of $450 per month per her three-year contract.
At Tuesday's school board meeting, trustees acknowledged they violated the Brown Act in both the superintendent's raises and the May approval of Hendricks' contract. The new Brown Act provision requires the board to summarize the financial terms of Hendricks' contract at a regular meeting, which McGee did on Tuesday.
"I apologize to the community for our sloppiness on this," said Vice President Ken Dauber. "None of these will change anything substantive, but it's really important that we be compliant and transparent."
The board will take a second vote at its next meeting to approve Hendricks' contract, which has also been slightly amended since May, and still has to report in open session and then formally approve the terms of Conaway's contract.