By Jim Clark
Conejo Valley Unified School District (CVUSD) leadership appears to be taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to make financial decisions that they know will be unpopular, like giving themselves raises and extending contracts at recent board meetings. The reason why this might work is because board meetings are on Zoom now and the district is making it extremely difficult for the public to make comments or participate in any meaningful way.
First on April 7th, the superintendent placed an item on the agenda to give all district employees, including himself, a 6 1/2% pay raise over the next two years. 2 1/2 % of the raise was retroactive to the beginning of the 2019-20 school year and another 2% raise will be added on this summer for the 2020-21 school year with another 2% in the summer of 2021. With many businesses shut down, tax revenue is going to be greatly reduced for the foreseeable future. Many find the decision by CVUSD to move forward with a large pay raise at the outset of this crisis to be irresponsible, as the financial health of the CVUSD was already in trouble. It is also seen by many to be tone-deaf and callous to the economic crisis underway. School budgets are definitely going to be in serious trouble, so is this the appropriate time to be giving big pay raises?
Second, on the May 7th agenda, the superintendent and the board president, Cindy Goldberg, placed an item asking the board to extend the superintendent’s contract for 5 more years. Board member Sandee Everett objected, since his current contract does not expire for another 1 ½ years and saw no reason to make a quick decision about the matter. Everett stated that she learned of the board president’s intention of extending the superintendent’s contract just an hour before the board meeting. There was a contract modification listed on the board meeting agenda, but the nature of that mod was not provided to the board or to the public.
Board member Betsy Connolly said that finding a new superintendent can take a year and she didn’t want to go through a search during COVID-19. Again, Mrs. Everett reminded the board that the superintendent’s contract did not expire for over a year.
McLaughlin’s new contract removed an additional automatic 2% annual raise based on good reviews, but it is only removed starting in 2022, and all the other pay raises mentioned for all CVUSD employees are still in place. His current salary (before all the raises) is $245,600 plus many benefits and perks.
It could be seen as highly opportunistic for Superintendent Mark McLaughlin to have proposed or supported these pay raises and extensions right now, and very irresponsible for the school board to have voted for it.
It was interesting that there were not more concerns and questions from board members about this surprise contract extension. According to the Brown Act, only a maximum of two board members could have possibly known about this highly unusual contract extension before the meeting. Yet there was no indication of any surprise or concern from any board member other than Sandee Everett. It appeared that she was the only board member that had been kept in the dark. Contrary to Brown Act requirements, the details of the contract extension were not posted on the agenda 72 hours in advance. In fact, the details were not posted at all. Typically, employment contracts for superintendents have a term of 2 to 3 years. Ms. Everett was the only dissenting vote against this unusual contract extension.
Now that McLaughlin, whose job performance has had very mixed reviews by the community, has a new contract that lasts for the next 5 ½ years, if the board ever has to terminate him, the taxpayers will have to pay him the remaining value of his contract. At this point in time, that would be worth well over a million dollars.
These actions are very controversial, and under normal conditions, would have resulted in many angry members of the community coming to the meeting to make public comments. But since community members are no longer allowed to just show up and make comments, the board seems to be able to act completely irresponsibly without worrying about taxpayer backlash.
The next CVUSD board meeting is on Tuesday, May 19 at 6:00 pm. Public speakers are no longer allowed to just show up and speak. If you want to make public comments during the meeting by phone, you must call the superintendent’s office at 805-497-9511 ext. 1101 by 5:00 pm MONDAY (yes, 25 hours before the meeting). If you want to speak about a particular agenda item, you need to include the agenda item in your call.