Palm Beach County School Board members took advantage of a low-profile retreat to come to agreement about one of their most contentious issues this year – a raise for Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa.
Without taking a formal vote, six of the seven board members tentatively agreed Wednesday that they support automatic annual raises for Avossa in line with those that other school district administrators receive, so long as Avossa continues to receive high marks on his performance. Board member Barbara McQuinn did not attend.
Board members directed Chairman Chuck Shaw to draft a formal proposal for a raise and a rolling five-year contract for them to consider on Feb. 22.
If the raise takes effect this year, it could mean a roughly $10,000 increase, bringing Avossa’s base pay to $334,750. It’s the same sum that raised many teachers’ hackles in November.
After Avossa received high marks on his job evaluation, a pay increase for him was first proposed in November. But the board punted twice after concerns about a lack of transparency around the proposal and criticism from teachers who objected to the size of the raise.
The hike proposed at the time would have meant a 3 percent increase, the same average raise that teachers and other school district employees received this year. Former Superintendent Wayne Gent had a similar provision in his contract granting him raises when other school district employees received them.
But as the school district’s highest-paid employee, Avossa’s raise– $9,750 – would have amounted to more than five times the raises that teachers received, which maxed out at $1,715. The proposal would have raised his total base pay to $334,750.
Avossa, whose current base salary is $325,000, ranks as the fourth-highest-paid superintendent among the nation’s largest school districts, according to a school district study.
The board decided in December to postpone a discussion of Avossa’s raise until a public meeting on Feb. 1. Instead, the discussion emerged Wednesday at an informal board retreat, one that was also public but wasn’t televised and for which no agenda was posted ahead of time.
Typically, board retreats — which are held away from the school district headquarters — are occasions for informal, free-wheeling discussions of organizational matters, not substantive policy debates.
On its website, the school board provided no agenda for the meeting, only a general description of the event as one in which the superintendent and board members would “participate in a facilitated Retreat/Workshop.”
Only at the retreat itself — in a meeting room at Palm Beach State College’s Lake Worth campus — did the school board make available copies of a detailed meeting agenda, one that included a planned discussion labeled “Superintendent’s Contract.”
Board members disagreed somewhat about whether Avossa’s raises should be tied to specific statistics, such as student test scores or graduation rates.
Board member Erica Whitfield said imposing performance goals in order for Avossa to receive raises could create pressures that “flow down” to teachers and students, adding stress to classrooms across the county.
“It’s not the kind of district that I’m really going for,” Whitfield said. “I don’t think we should tie it so directly to the academic achievement.”
Board members Marcia Andrews and Debra Robinson disagreed, calling for requiring the district to meet specific goals in order for Avossa to receive raises.
“I cannot live with automatic,” Robinson said. “I cannot live with automatic.”
Avossa countered, however, that the raises would not be automatic if they are predicated on his receiving high marks on his annual job evaluations.
Shaw, who will draft the proposal, said afterward that he expected to tie the raises to Avossa’s evaluations.
In December, Avossa told board members that he preferred to forgo a raise this year, saying the debate had become a distraction. On Wednesday, though, he told board members he does want a raise, along with a rolling five-year contract.
He pointed out that Gent and previous superintendents had similar provisions, assuring them the possibility of pay raises each year without high-profile school board votes.
After the meeting, he said that he hoped the issue can be resolved quickly.
“I certainly don’t want it to be a distraction,” he said. “We have so many other things to focus on.”
Shaw said that he would work with the school board’s attorneys on a formal proposal for the board to approve on Feb. 22. He said amending Avossa’s contract would be an important move after years of turnover at the district’s highest levels.
“We have stability in the district and we have leadership,” he said.
Even with a contract that automatically renews, Avossa still could be terminated with agreement from at least five board members.