When The Augusta Chronicle published a story last Sunday showing how Richmond County taxpayers have gotten ripped off by their school board's "consulting" contract with ex-superintendent Charles Larke, the question understandably arose: How does that compare with Columbia County's final contract with Tommy Price?
It's reasonable to ask. Fortunately for Columbia County taxpayers, the answer is reassuring. And board members can take action to make it even better.
Here's the background: Stuck with a superintendent whose missteps were costing the county an increasing toll in legal fees, a faction in Richmond County's school board last year began negotiating Larke's departure. But Larke wasn't ready to leave, and his contract protected him.
Larke's goal was to stretch his employment out long enough to get credit for 40 years of service. According to the rules of the state Teachers Retirement System, that would provide him the maximum retirement payout, equal to 80 percent of his highest two years of salary.
The board worked out a "consultant" agreement in which Larke would be shown the door in return for a golden parachute that cost taxpayers $277,000.
What did those taxpayers get in return? Nothing - other than Larke's departure. The "consultant" language was phony window-dressing. It's too bad Richmond trustees won't admit Larke was just being paid off, rather than clinging to the ludicrous notion that he was kept on retainer for access to his expertise.
So, where did Richmond County's trustees get the idea last September to dress up the Larke payoff by calling him a "consultant"? Sadly, it seems they were seeking legitimacy by confusing taxpayers with the deal Columbia County trustees made, three months earlier, when Superintendent Tommy Price decided to retire.
Under that two-year contract, signed last June, Price will retire at the end of this school year. He will then return for a "transitional" year, 2007-08, as a "49 percenter." The state system allows retirees to draw their retirement pay as long as they don't work more than 49 percent of full time.
Price's base salary is $161,631, so the pay for his final year will be just less than $80,000 - a far cry from the $277,000 Richmond taxpayers paid Larke.
There's another crucial difference, too: Larke was supposedly a work-from-home "consultant," available by phone - but no one was calling. Price won't be a consultant; he will be a school-system employee, working from an office at the school board.
There is no rational comparison between the two contracts. Still, it is fair to ask whether Price's transitional year is now justified.
At the time of Price's retirement, the idea of the transitional term was to allow the veteran superintendent an opportunity to work with his successor. That would have been necessary if an outsider had been hired to take his place; instead, the school board promoted Associate Superintendent Charles Nagle.
Any further "transition" can take place during the next three months while Price winds down his final year as superintendent. His office is right next door to Nagle's, so it's not as if there will be an extensive need for hand-holding after Nagle takes over.
A transitional plan made sense at the time the two-year contract was signed, and school board members agreed to it out in the open. It comes into question now only in hindsight, through lenses fogged by Richmond County's Faustian bargain with Larke.
That isn't fair to Columbia County's School Board, it isn't fair to Price - and it certainly isn't fair to Columbia County's taxpayers, who deserve better than to see their system painted with the same broad brush as the bogus deal next door.
Still, for the remainder of Price's contract, Columbia County's school board should not hire anyone to fill the administration vacancy that will result from Nagle's promotion. Those savings would offset the additional expense while the remainder of Price's contract is fulfilled.
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.