Reasonable limit on school boss' contract

Written by Baker City Herald Editorial Board June 22, 2011 06:43 pm

Walt Wegener, superintendent of the Baker School District, deserves to have his employment contract extended for another year.

That would give Wegener, who started work here July 1, 2010, and signed a contract that continues until June 30, 2012, some measure of job security through June 30, 2013. More importantly, it would give the district continuity of leadership while it restructures its staff and budget to accommodate declining enrollment.

The school board, though, is considering offering Wegener a multi-year extension, beyond 2013.

That’s not appropriate.

Our main objection to the board giving Wegener a longer-term contract extension is that the decision would, in effect, presuppose what the three newly elected board members will think about Wegener’s performance.

Voters elected those three directors — Kyle Knight, James Longwell and Mark Henderson — last month.

The newcomers will comprise a majority of the five-member board.

But their terms don’t start until July 1. And the current board could approve a contract extension for Wegener on June 28.

Let’s say the current board, when it meets next week, extends Wegener’s contract for three more years, through June 30, 2015.

We understand the board’s desire to express their confidence in Wegener by giving him a multi-year extension.

Problem is, three of the current directors won’t be evaluating his performance during that period.

Knight, Longwell and Henderson will have that responsibility. It’s a vital responsibility, and moreover, one given them by the voters.

What if the new directors decide, a year from now, that Wegener, even though he has two years left on his contract, has not performed to their satisfaction and that they want to replace him?

We would of course expect that the board, in that situation, could cogently explain how Wegener had failed.

But it seems to us that the directors would, in that circumstance, have the inherent disadvantage of having to also address the obvious question that district residents would ask: Why is their evaluation of the superintendent so drastically different from their predecessors’ assessment?

Fortunately, the current board could address another potential pratfall by making sure the extended contract, like the current version, includes the proviso that if the board fires Wegener before his contract expires, he will not be entitled to a buyout.

That’s a vital clause. It would ensure that the new board, regardless of the length of Wegener’s contract, could replace him without having to spend what could amount to a couple hundred thousand dollars in severance pay.

To be clear, we’re not suggesting that the new board will inevitably find fault with Wegener.

We applaud Wegener for his steady and competent work during a difficult first year, one marked by the district’s revenue failing to keep pace with its spending.

However, considering the absence of a buyout clause in his current contract, Wegener’s job security is in reality tied to whether he performs to the standards set by the board, regardless of what ending date is printed on the pact.

Given that, the current board should let the new directors decide whether to extend Wegener’s contract beyond 2013.

Doing otherwise would be a disservice not only to the new directors, but to the voters who elected them.