More than six weeks after the Board offered George Arlotto the superintendent position, it still has not disclosed his compensation.
More than six weeks ago the Anne Arundel County Public School System (AACPS) School Board offered George Arlotto the position of superintendent, pending negotiation of a mutually agreeable contact. More than three weeks ago the Board formally voted to hire Arlotto, at which time the public was told, as WBAL-TV reported, that “pending some last-minute paperwork, Arlotto is set to take the reins of the state’s fifth largest school district this summer.”
Why No Contract?
Let’s accept as a given that, as reported, the contract has not been signed. The question is, why? On the surface, it would seem grossly irresponsible for the School Board to publicly vote on offering Arlotto the superintendent’s position without having an agreement in hand. For anyone with common sense about contract negotiations, this course of action obviously shifted tremendous negotiating leverage to Arlotto—an act akin to signing a blank check, which hopefully your parents taught you never to do.
What I suspect is really going on here is that the School Board is trying to manage appearances. A significant fraction of the public would be enraged if it found out that a senior public employee, such as Arlotto, had been offered a contract effectively paying more than $500,000/year his first year. (The Governor only earns $150,000/year.) Since the Board has no intention of actually reducing Arlotto’s compensation package to a publicly popular level, the focus has to shift to managing the package’s appearance.
The worst possible moment to reveal a controversial compensation package is the moment when the School Board votes on it, for that’s when the public and news media are paying attention. By waiting even a day after the Board vote hits the front page, the damage is significantly reduced. This common sense political reasoning applies to the major union contracts as well as the superintendent’s contract.
Fortunately for the School Board, there always can be a plausible excuse for not publicly disclosing the actual contract–or even just its major terms–at the time the Board effectively votes on the contract. Let’s assume that final agreement has been reached shortly before the Board is scheduled to vote on it. It may indeed be difficult to finalize the contract before the vote, including finishing side agreements, proofreading and printing the contract, making sure everyone approves its final form, and posting it on the website along with the rest of the meeting agenda.
In the past, the public has often been told by the AACPS PR office and sometimes other public officials what the major terms of the contract are before the contract is posted on the AACPS website. To the extent such descriptions are trustworthy, no harm is done. But in my experience, such disclosures have been highly selective and misleading. Selective because someone has to choose which of the many facts to highlight from a long contract, and misleading because the facts that are disclosed are often framed in a highly misleading way. For example, when AACPS agreed to pay former superintendent Maxwell hundreds of thousands of dollars for unused sick leave acquired in his earlier jobs, this fact was not revealed in the press release describing his compensation package.
In the case of Arlotto, however, the School Board has appeared to reach a new low. Usually, it makes controversial agreements publicly available shortly after the press focus has switched to a different story. Usually, it also provides some upfront guidance, no matter how misleading, as to what are the basic terms of the agreement. And usually, details prove to be just that, and don’t take weeks to negotiate.
Now I do not doubt that the School Board is telling the truth that only minor details need to be worked out in Arlotto’s contract. For any other situation to be the case would be too irresponsible of the Board to even contemplate. But more than three weeks passing after a formal vote without a final agreement or even a press release summary of its major terms would appear to break new ground in terms of Board chutzpah.
One partial explanation may be my article on the value of the incoming superintendent’s expected signing bonus of more than $2 million dollars. (See Expected $2.4 Million ‘Signing Bonus’ For Chosen AACPS Superintendent, April 6, 2014.) That story got thousands of hits and was widely read among County opinion leaders.
Another partial explanation may be that former Superintendent Maxwell’s hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of undisclosed sick leave compensation was highly controversial and in early April of this year even led the General Assembly to pass highly popular legislation restricting such a compensation package in the future. (Alas, the legislation left plenty of loopholes for the School Board’s compensation gamesmanship to thrive.)
As a practical matter, the extent to which the School Board intentionally delayed finalizing and releasing Arlotto’s compensation package is largely irrelevant. (And even if it was intentional, they would, of course, deny it.) What matters is that the delay is brilliant PR. For by waiting until parents and others are distracted by summer and have long since moved on to other issues, they minimize the harm when the contract is finally be released—and released, by law, it must be.
To prevent the School Board from releasing compensation information after such information is no longer timely, Maryland’s General Assembly should pass a credible law mandating that a school board be allowed to vote on an employee group contract or the hiring of a superintendent only after the public has had at least 72 hours before the vote to see the relevant contract both posted online and linked to the agenda of the coming meeting. However simple and reasonable this idea, I’d be willing to bet that it would have no chance of passage given the intense lobbying against it that any legislator would be sure to expect.
1) Snider, J.H., Is the AACPS School Board Embarrassed by the Incoming Superintendent’s Compensation?, Anne Arundel Patch, May 29, 2014.
1) Snider, J.H., Is the AACPS School Board Embarrassed by the Incoming Superintendent’s Compensation?, Watchdog Wire, June 3, 2014.