February 4, 2017

Bills to stop contract buyouts die in House committee

Albuquerque Public Schools superintendent Luis Valentino. Photo courtesy APS website

A state House committee on Friday tabled two pieces of legislation aimed at stopping public school superintendents, college presidents and university coaches from getting what some lawmakers referred to as a “golden parachute” when their contracts are terminated early.

The House Education Committee action effectively killed both bills, sponsored by Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque.

The decisions came on bipartisan votes, with some lawmakers and members of the education community arguing that the measures would hinder the ability of school districts and colleges to recruit high-quality candidates for top jobs.

Much of the discussion Friday centered on recent controversy involving Robert Frank, the former president of The University of New Mexico who agreed to step down in December under a deal with the board of regents that allows him to continue collecting his annual salary of $350,000 through May.

Under the agreement, Frank can continue working at UNM in a $190,000-a-year tenured position. In the meantime, he has been job hunting. Frank is one of four finalists for the president’s position at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

While Frank’s deal, which came as UNM faced steep budget cuts, drew widespread criticism, some lawmakers on the House Education Committee said the provisions in his contract that led to the agreement were key recruiting tools.

Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, a newcomer in the House who also serves on the Santa Fe school board, was one of the committee’s most vocal opponents of the proposals. “I don’t consider it to be a golden parachute,” she said of contract buyouts.

She also said the superintendent bill, House Bill 70, was “extremely overreaching. … You could literally terminate a superintendent for almost anything.”

Several college and public school leaders in New Mexico have left their positions in recent years under lucrative buyout deals after falling out of favor with their boards.

Santa Fe Community College agreed to a $500,000 settlement in 2014 with Ana “Cha” Guzmán, who had been fired by the college’s Governing Board, and Santa Fe Public Schools paid former Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez $168,000 when the school board fired her in 2012.

Albuquerque Public Schools saw two superintendents leave back-to-back with big payouts. Luis Valentino received $80,000 to step down in 2015 after just months on the job. Previously, the district had paid Winston Brooks $350,000 to resign following his six-year tenure.

Contact Cynthia Miller at 505-986-3095 or cmiller@sfnewmexican.com.