Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Full-time employees at Columbia Union School District will each get a windfall of $2,000 on their Nov. 30 paychecks, thanks to an arrangement made behind closed doors with Superintendent John Pendley and the school board.

The extra payments total $104,130 for 65 Columbia Union School District employees, not including substitute teachers or Pendley himself.

Pendley disclosed that full-time employees will receive the $2,000 payments, but only after being asked following a Nov. 13 Board of Trustees meeting.

Part-time employees will also get a share based on their working hours, he said.

Nothing was mentioned about the bonuses during the November meeting, when trustees voted on the plan in closed session. The district's union representatives were present at the closed session.

California law permits school boards to meet privately about labor negotiations, according to Peter Scheer, executive director of the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition.

However, Scheer believes Columbia Union School District violated public trust in not giving voters a chance to weigh in on the bonuses or disclosing more information before the board approved them.

"What they did, the law gives them the option to do it," Scheer said. "The gutless cowardly thing to do is do it all in secret rather than meet with the public … and explain to voters what they propose."

Voters may have wanted to clarify where the money was coming from, Scheer said, and ask whether there were ongoing hidden costs to the district.

Pendley did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Columbia Union School District has been no stranger to controversy within the past two years, thanks to a 2010 sex scandal involving Pendley's own son Brennan Pendley. Brennan, hired as an aide in Columbia Elementary's federally funded after-school program, had sex with a 14-year-old student in a classroom.

Jo Rodefer, a Pendley critic who was recently elected to the district's Board of Trustees but has not yet been sworn in, took a less-than-positive view of his choice to hand out more than $100,000 in extra pay.

"I think it's pretty easy in this economic environment to buy people's favor," she said.

Outgoing board member Jeff Tolhurst shared Rodefer's skepticism of the move - especially in light of his fellow trustees' decision to fill a board vacancy by appointment rather than a special election.

The vacancy was left by trustee Jeff Costello, who resigned Oct. 31.

Tuolumne County Clerk and Auditor-Recorder Debi Russell Bautista estimated that a special election for Costello's seat would likely cost the district between $2,000 and $4,000. Instead of holding a special election, the board is appointing a new member next month.

"The thing that struck me … was they're paying $2,000 per full-time (employee), and yet to actually schedule a special election for $2,000 is too expensive?" Tolhurst asked.

He added that he felt school district employees should get ongoing raises, not one-time payments.

Pendley announced at a Sept. 11 board meeting that the district is in a better financial position than he expected, due to the arrival of about $46,000 in state transportation funding from a previous year and savings in a variety of areas.

"When we have a positive ending balance, we always try to work with the employee groups to recognize them," he said at the September meeting.

Tami Ethier, the Tuolumne County Office of Education's assistant superintendent for business services, said it is not unheard of for school districts to give employees one-time payments. Raises, by contrast, require school districts to shoulder a continued higher expense.

"It's good to do it this way because (they're) not incurring ongoing cost," Ethier said. "The fiscal climate doesn't lend itself to giving raises."

Ethier added that Columbia Union School District and Belleview School District - which Pendley also oversees - are in strong financial positions compared with most other Tuolumne County districts.

Pendley himself will earn about $166,600 this year, not including health or retirement benefits and a $3,600 business allowance. He received what was noted as a "bonus" in county payroll documents in 2006-07, amounting to about $14,300.

Outgoing Columbia Union School District Board of Trustees President Clark Segerstrom has said the amount was not a bonus but back payment for Pendley's work as a "construction manager."

Pendley's 2006-07 bonus came out of the district's general fund, Ethier said.

Segerstrom also said that the district has given out extra payments to employees in the past, crediting such payments for the "positive" relationships between the district and unions.

Teachers at Summerville Union High School District negotiated their own one-time arrangement this summer, receiving bonuses in June for the 2011-12 school year. The payments amounted to 1.5 percent of their salaries for a total of $45,098, according to district Chief Business Official Tonya Midget.

"They wanted a salary increase and we didn't want to commit to anything that went on forever and ever," said Summerville Union High School District Superintendent John Keiter. "So we made an agreement to give a one-time increase for last school year."

The average annual teacher salary at Summerville is about $70,000. Teachers there haven't received raises or even one-time payments since 2007-08, the last year education was fully funded in California, Midget said. Summerville High had a total teacher budget of about $2.6 million last year.

Keiter said district employees not working as teachers, such as bus drivers and support staff, are still attempting to negotiate ongoing rather than one-time raises. If the district "settles" with them, administrative staff will get one-time payments as well.

That includes Summerville High's principal, its grade-level coordinator, Midget and Keiter himself. Keiter's salary was about $202,000 in 2011-12 and went up to $207,300 this academic year, including health insurance and business expenses.

Columbia district staff are calling the arrangement made Nov. 13 a "one-time off-the-schedule payment" rather than a bonus, the same terminology Keiter used for the Summerville High payments.

Contact Brenna Swift at or 588-4529.