Columbia Union School District trustees and administrators addressed bonuses paid to school staff at a board meeting Tuesday, contending that the expenditure of more than $100,000 in public funds for the payments was appropriate.
Trustee Laura Phelan, who was named board president later in the meeting, said Columbia Elementary has given “one-time off-the-schedule payments” to district staff in the past and that employees were appreciative.
She objected to the choice of the word “bonus” to describe the payments, though agencies including Summerville Union High School District have used the term in similar arrangements negotiated with staff unions this year.
In a portion of its Nov. 13 meeting that was closed to the public, the Columbia Elementary board unanimously approved extra payments of $2,000 for each full-time staff member and smaller amounts to part-time employees.
Principal Ed Pelfrey, but not Superintendent John Pendley, received a bonus. The amounts appeared on the employees’ Nov. 30 paychecks.
Later at Tuesday’s meeting, community members weighed in on the bonuses, with some expressing support for the decision. Others, including former Tuolumne County Assessor David Wynne, alleged that it violated California law.
The total sum approved for staff bonuses at Columbia’s Nov. 13 board meeting was well over $100,000.
Records from the Tuolumne County Office of Education initially indicated that the payments added up to $104,130 for 65 employees, but Columbia Union School District documents put the amount at $108,130 — with total expenses to the district of $128,148.
Pendley attributed the additional $20,000 to extra costs associated with retirement benefits, since the teachers’ level of compensation rose.
He also said the Tuolumne County Office of Education received a public disclosure document 10 days before the Nov. 13 board meeting at which the Board of Trustees approved the bonuses.
However, save for a reference Pendley made to “recognizing” district staff made on Sept. 11, no exact description of the bonuses, or their amounts, was given at a public board meeting prior to their approval.
Following negotiations, union representatives for Columbia Union School District teachers and other staff members signed off on the agreement Oct. 30.
Liz Gaiser, secretary for Pelfrey and a union representative for district support staff, said she was happy with the outcome.
“As a group, it was put before us, and we all had to agree with it,” Gaiser said. “I would say yes, my group is definitely pleased with the arrangement.”
County payroll documents show full-time Columbia Union School District employees have received bonuses on at least one previous occasion. They each took home an extra $1,500 each in November 2007.
Summerville Union High School District followed a markedly different procedure in approving about $45,000 in one-time payments for teachers on paychecks at the end of June, placing them on a public agenda for the district’s June 13 Board of Education meeting.
The precise cost of the bonuses, including detailed descriptions of the arrangement and an outline of its financial impacts on the district, was included in publicly available documents at the meeting when they were approved.
In readying documentation of the bonuses, Summerville High cited a California law that requires schools to give the public an opportunity to weigh in on such decisions before they become binding.
California Government Code Section 3547.5 says that arrangements between employee unions and schools must be disclosed at a public meeting “before a public school employer enters into a written agreement” with union representatives.
Columbia Elementary cited a different government code on its Nov. 13 board meeting agenda — one that allows school boards to meet privately with superintendents regarding salaries, “fringe benefits” and other labor negotiations.
The approval of the bonuses was labeled as a labor negotiation on the “closed session” portion of the Nov. 13 agenda. Pendley described the nature of the agreement only when asked by The Union Democrat.
He seemed to acknowledge the need for public disclosure of the payments by signing a standard public disclosure statement more than a week later, Nov. 29.
A space for the signature of the Board of Trustees president was left blank and given Tuesday’s date on the public disclosure document, even though text above indicates that the president should have signed it “upon formal Board action on the proposed agreement.”
The district described the entire arrangement as “tentative” on Tuesday’s meeting agenda.
When asked why the board’s decision to award the payments had been made behind closed doors, Pendley reiterated that the Tuolumne County Office of Education was supplied with information about the arrangement 10 days before its approval.
Confirmation from the Office of Education was not available Tuesday.
Phelan on Tuesday criticized newspaper coverage of the payments — calling it “erroneous” and “misleading” without specifying any alleged errors beyond her objections to the word “bonus.”
“I encourage you, like you did a year ago: If you have any questions about what’s going on in this district, come to the board members,” Phelan said. “Come to the district office. Come to the staff.”
She credited a Nov. 30 passage in “The Prospector,” a Columbia Union School District newsletter, for “clarifying” information about the scenario.
“The district’s philosophy has always been to fairly compensate staff whenever it is financially feasible,” the newsletter read. “We found ourselves in that situation after closing the 2011-12 school year budget.”
The letter, whose author is not named, echoed Pendley’s prior descriptions of a higher-than-expected general fund balance and said the district is “fully able to support” the bonuses.
Data from the California Department of Education shows that during the 2011-12 school year, teachers at Columbia Union School District had the lowest average salaries — an annual amount of $52,161— among teachers at other school districts in Tuolumne or Calaveras counties.
Two local school districts, Belleview Elementary School and Curtis Creek Elementary School, did not submit salary information for 2011-12.
Kristin Wilson, a first-grade teacher at Columbia Elementary and a union representative for the district’s teachers, affirmed that Columbia teachers have received one-time payments in the past.
“When one-time money is available at the end of the school year, our team went in and negotiated for it,” Wilson said. “That was the outcome.”
Several audience members on Tuesday said they felt Columbia Elementary teachers deserved the bonuses.
“I just wanted to thank the board for watching my taxpayer dollars so well — that you were able to spend (them) in an an appropriate manner with the one-time off-the-schedule payments,” said Joe von Herrmann, a member of the Tuolumne County Board of Education.
David Wynne, former Tuolumne County assessor and member of Columbia Elementary’s Class of 1960, said he had mixed feelings.
“I really personally have no issue or problem with granting the bonuses, or whatever you want to call them, to the staff,” Wynne said.
“But I totally disagree with the way it was done. … I think it was a Brown Act violation,” he continued, referring to the California law that requires government boards to operate openly.
Community member Paul Girard said the bonuses could be tied to a 2010 campus scandal involving Pendley’s son, Brennan, who had sex with a 14-year-old girl in a classroom while working as an aide.
“What’s the true intent of the bonuses to the staff?” Girard asked. “Does anyone think that it might be a reward to the staff … for their past (and) continued support in the mishandled campus sex scandal involving a school employee, Mr. Pendley’s son?”
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