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Audit: Early superintendent resignation cost Fairfield S.D.

Written by Staff Report/Hanover Evening Sun | Nov 1, 2016 8:02 AM
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Photo by Ben Allen/witf

(Fairfield) -- The early resignation of Fairfield Area School District's superintendent in 2014 cost the district an additional $128,000, according to state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale in a news release.

Auditors list $89,000 in salaries, medical benefits and retirement contributions during William Chain's administrative leave and $39,000 in related legal costs as "unnecessary," the release states.

The audit, which covers a span of time from July 2009 to June 2015, also found that the school board's actions lacked transparency related to the former superintendent and the board failed to comply with the Sunshine Act regarding notification of an executive session.

Chain resigned in Dec. 2014 after serving as superintendent for seven years. The board voted 5-3 to accept his resignation at a Dec. 1 meeting. He was placed on paid administrative leave from Dec. 23, 2014, through June 30, 2015.

DePasquale said that before Chain's resignation, the school board notified Chain that they were considering prematurely ending his contract and discussed a financial settlement with him.

The board accepted Chain's resignation publicly, but the negotiation of a settlement before his resignation was not made public, and the three dissenting board members were not given proper notice of a executive session that occurred two hours before the Dec. 1 meeting, DePasquale said.

In accordance with the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, the school board is required to reach all decisions on record in a public meeting.

"You're not allowed to make any decisions in executive session. You can discuss, but must make decisions publicly," DePasquale said.

The school board is also required to give public notice of an early contract termination 150 days before the contract reaches completion, according to the Public School Code.

The district denied this claim, responding in the report that since Chain resigned, it was not required to give notice.

"School boards have a right to end a superintendent's contract early," DePasquale said in the press release. "However, the process used to remove the superintendent should be completely transparent and done without increasing costs to the district.

DePasquale said the Department of Auditor General began investigating the school district because of dozens of complaints received from parents concerned with transparency -- a number on par with larger school districts such as those in Philadelphia.

The report refers to Chain's situation as a buyout because of the negotiation of the settlement that occurred before Chain submitted his resignation.

DePasquale said costs could have been avoided if the board gave cause for the early termination, like if Chain violated his contract or broke state law.

"If the board had been transparent in their intentions from the beginning, the district could have used the $128,000 to benefit students," he said in the release.

The district responded in the report that the Public School Code provides for circumstances in which a board can remove a superintendent prior to the end of a contractual term and give severance pay. Legal fees incurred after the decision to remove the superintendent were appropriate and not a matter of right or wrong, according to the district.

DePasquale's report also states that the district incorrectly reported Chain's wages to the state retirement system during the administrative leave period.

According to the district management response, the district fixed the reporting error before the release of the auditor general's final report, calling the error "inadvertent." The district said it was told that no finding would be made in the audit report if the error was corrected.

DePasquale responded that the error was not corrected before the completion of field work for the audit, therefore it would need to be independently verified during the next audit.

"The district is doing what it needs to do to correct any issues in accordance with whatever the law provides," said Karen Kubler, the district's current superintendent.

Pam Mikesell, the current school board president, and Benjamin Pratt, solicitor for the district, could not be reached for comment.

This article is part of a partnership between WITF and the Hanover Evening Sun.

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