Raising Trouble

The Amphi School Board Votes At Midnight To Give Its Superintendent A Nice, Fat Pay Hike.

By Jim Nintzel

AFTER EMERGING FROM a three-hour executive session at close to midnight last Tuesday, December 9, the Amphitheater School Board voted to raise Superintendent Robert Smith's salary by $5,000 and extend his contract through the year 2001.

It was Smith's second raise and contract extension this year, bringing his annual salary to $94,175. Smith also received a $4,000 bonus earlier this year.

"The fact that they've given him another raise just six months after that last one is appalling," says John Holden, a father of two children in the district. "They didn't have to. They'd already given him a raise this year. Why bother again? The guy had a contract through December of 2000. It's not like there's a real pressing need to extend that contract."

Currents The late-night vote resulted in a banner headline on the front page of the Tucson Citizen and a prominent story (along with a stinging Fitz cartoon) in The Arizona Daily Star. Last week's Tucson Weekly also carried several stories exposing legal problems and related controversy in the school district.

In response to the spate of negative publicity, board members Gary Woodard and Virginia Houston hastily penned an "open letter to the Amphi Community," in which they tried to bring a different spin to the late-night vote.

Woodard and Houston blamed the negative stories on board member Nancy Young Wright, who walked out of the meeting rather than staying to vote at the late hour. Wright sent out a press release the following day, criticizing the board for its "midnight vote."

"They're saying I was repetitive and asking questions," says Wright, who argues that the board hadn't discussed Smith's salary since June. "We never talked about it since that time. They gave me nothing in my packet to refresh anyone's memory, and maybe I wouldn't have to ask questions if I got something besides a tap-dance. I ask questions because I don't get answers. Plus, it tells me maybe, just maybe, they're getting prepped before the meeting, if they have no questions."

Woodard and Houston said the raise was justified in light of the fact that they were stripping clauses in Smith's contract which made him eligible for up to $7,000 in merit bonuses and an unspecified amount in additional bonuses if money remained in the district's budget at the end of the fiscal year.

"To compensate for the loss of up to $7,000 in annual merit pay, automatic annual increases, and possible bonuses, his base pay was increased by $5,000," they wrote. "Over the next couple of years, the net result of these adjustments most likely is a modest decrease in the superintendent's pay."

Smith's contract has been a flashpoint for controversy this year. Last summer, Smith got a $4,000 bonus and a 2.5 percent pay raise, bringing his salary to $89,175. Last week's $5,000 raise brings his total to $94,175--an 8 percent increase from his starting pay of $87,000 when he was hired as superintendent 18 months ago in June 1996. (Smith had been earning $70,000 as an associate superintendent.)

In addition, Smith is eligible for a $8,200 expense account and a car allowance valued at $6,400. He also earns close to $400 for each vacation day he does not take.

In June 1996, just three months after he assumed the superintendent's position, Smith received a $2,807 bonus.

Holden, who has been a staunch critic of the district's policies, isn't buying the board's official explanation. He waited in the board room for the executive session to wrap up so he could comment on the contract, but gave up at about 11:30 p.m., when the board had still not emerged from executive session.

"It's another example of how wonderful things can happen under the cover of darkness," says Holden, who helped form Students First, a group of parents who have been complaining for months about Amphi's board and administration. "It was kind of like they waited for us to leave so they could come out of hiding."

In the letter, Woodard and Houston explained they didn't postpone the vote until the next board meeting because, "The Board had promised Dr. Smith it would act on his contract by no later than December 15."

"Most importantly, there was no attempt to act behind the public's back," they explained.

Holden says that explanation doesn't wash.

"The Superintendent is supposed to carry out the direction of the board," Holden says. "Instead, the board is carrying out the direction of Dr. Smith, it would appear."

In their letter, Woodard and Houston describe the district as the victim of a "smear" campaign.

"This unfortunate incident is the latest in an increasingly bizarre sequence of malicious, manufactured smears against the district," they write. "That some of these attacks are being abetted or even orchestrated by a board member still seems incredible."

Wright denies trying to sabotage the district.

"I think that's just poppycock," Wright says. "I'm not orchestrating anything. We're supposed to be upholding the public trust. We're supposed to be asking questions."

Likewise, Holden defends his criticism of the board.

"We're going out and asking questions: How come you're doing this or why are you doing that?" Holden says. "We keep asking questions that should have been asked, especially with the land purchase. You ask questions like that and point out there are other ways of doing this that would be a lot more sensible and that seems to be an attack on their credibility. Well, hey, folks, it doesn't make sense to do things the way you're doing it."

"We are keenly aware of the confusion, pain, and distress being inflicted on the Amphi community, and the potential damage such scurrilous allegations can do to the district," Woodard and Houston conclude in their letter. "Anticipating and preventing internally destructive acts of a governing board member is very difficult. We can only promise to redouble our efforts to defend the reputation for educational excellence that you have earned for Amphi by getting the facts out."

Holden says the board majority has done wonders for Amphi's reputation so far.

"They're doing a fine job, because the reputation is disgusting right now," Holden says. "The only reputation that they have is stonewalling and playing under cover." TW

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