Palm Beach County School Board members stiff-armed a proposal Wednesday to give Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa a nearly $10,000 raise and guarantee him automatic raises in the future, saying they were blindsided by the last-minute proposition.
While praising Avossa’s performance in his 1½ years leading the district, three of the six board members criticized the way the pay increase was added to their agenda a day beforehand. They said that the last-minute addition — an unusual move that the board’s rules discourage — prevented them from studying the proposal closely or asking questions.
“For me, the optics were really bad and the way this was slipped in,” board member Karen Brill said. “I just don’t understand what the emergency was to slip it in without giving board members an opportunity to vet this item.”
Amid criticism from teachers and calls from business leaders to approve the raise, board members agreed to postpone the proposal and reconsider a raise for Avossa next month.
If approved, the pay hike would have amounted to a 3 percent increase, the same average raise that teachers and other school district employees received this year.
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.
The proposed amendment to his contract also would have guaranteed Avossa raises every year equal to at least the average raise received by teachers.
Board members questioned the wisdom of granting him automatic pay raises without conditioning them on performance.
“If the words automatic are in there, it needs to be based on student achievement,” board member Debra Robinson said.
The size of the raise drew criticism from teachers disappointed with their own pay increases. Several pointed out that the flat raises that teachers received this year — either $1,365 or $1,715, depending on their performance — ended up averaging 3 percent overall, but for more senior teachers the raises amounted to less than 2 percent.
“Our increases are not automatic and are based on performance,” teachers union president Kathi Gundlach said.
All board members went out of their way to praise Avossa’s performance and make clear that they did not oppose some sort of pay increase for him.
Three representatives from the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, a business consortium, also appeared at the meeting to endorse Avossa’s raise.
Board member Erica Whitfield, who supported the proposal, called it “a minimal raise.”
“This is what you do when you have the best,” she said. “You recognize their work.”
But board member Marcia Andrews, who met with Avossa on Tuesday, questioned why she did not learn about the proposal until the day of the meeting.
“I was quite shocked when I came home this afternoon and I found this,” she said. “This is a problem for me when, as a board, we don’t discuss things.”
It was not clear why the proposal was added to the school board’s agenda just a day before the meeting. Typically, the agendas for board meetings are finalized in the previous week.
Once they are finalized, school board rules require that changes or additions only be made if the board chairman determines there is “good cause” to do so. The rules say that “notification of such change shall be at the earliest practicable time.”
School Board Vice Chairman Frank Barbieri accepted blame for the last-minute addition, saying he worked out the proposed raise last week on his own without consulting Avossa, and that Avossa had only learned of the proposal on Tuesday.
“He must have signed it today or last night,” he said after Wednesday’s board meeting. A school board attorney’s signature on the contract suggested that it was vetted by the board’s legal department last month, though.
Avossa declined to comment on the proposal.
Earlier this month, all six school board members gave Avossa a “highly effective” rating on his job evaluation, the top score.
Board members praised his communication skills and work to reform key aspects of the county’s public school system, and Chairman Chuck Shaw wrote at the time that Avossa had “far exceeded expectations.”
But the proposed raise came a week after voters approved raising the county’s sales tax by a percentage point, a move that is expected to pour an extra $1.3 billion into the school district’s coffers over the next decade.
In an interview, Brill said raising his pay immediately after the sales tax vote would have looked suspect to some county residents.
“Even though it’s coming from a different pot of money, the optics are very bad,” she said.