Scannell: More transparency, public input required in Superintendent contract talks

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As a school board member I’m calling for greater transparency and increased opportunities for public input in the process that may lead to a contract extension for Superintendent Bolgen Vargas.

At our Tuesday meeting, the Board of School Committee voted to recommend a two-year contract extension for the superintendent.

The two-year extension was voted on after the board rejected a proposal to amend the board’s rules to allow for a five-year contract to be offered to Vargas and future superintendents.

The board sent its recommendation for a contract extension to its coordination committee to work out the document’s details.

As school board representative for Ward 2, I see this attempt to change board rules to allow for a five-year contract an affront to open government and a potential violation of the spirit and letter of the right-to-know law.

At about midnight, long after the last taxpayer had been shooed out the door to enable the board to enter non-public session and long after community television had turned the cameras off, the board debated a change in its rules that would allow the board to offer five-year contracts to superintendents.

A critical decision such as this should be clearly presented on the agenda and should be debated at at time when someone other than vampires and school board members are awake.

Every two years, the citizens of Manchester elect their representatives to the mayor’s office and to the aldermanic and school boards.  Parents, teachers, taxpayers and students should be made aware when the superintendent’s contract is going to be discussed and should have an opportunity to weigh in.

I also object to attempts to ram through under the cover of darkness a contract that could bind the superintendent to the district for half a decade for reasons not the least of which is potential costs to the district, in the event a buyout of the superintendent’s contract were required.

Based on an estimated annual salary of $175,000, we could be on the hook for almost $700,000 if, after the first year of the contract, the board and the superintendent wanted to part ways.  Buyouts are not unheard of in these situations.

Three municipal election cycles will take place in the next five years. No superintendent should be granted a contract that would make him or her less responsive to the evolving needs of the people of Manchester.

I will propose notice be provided on the agenda prior to the board’s next meeting that the superintendent’s contract will be voted on.  In addition, I will propose a rule requiring that all votes pertaining to a superintendent’s contract take place before 9 p.m.  Finally, I will propose a rule requiring that any votes taken by the board after 9 p.m. be clearly announced on the district’s website by noon of the following day.

I would reiterate that debates about rule changes must take place in public.  Any discussion of rule changes that may have taken place Tuesday in non-public session violate the right-to-know law.

My objections do not reflect a lack of confidence in the current superintendent on my part; the vote to send a two-year deal to committee was unanimous. My objective in writing this is simply to call for more transparency going forward.

Dave Scannell is the Ward 2 Representative on the Manchester Board of School Committee.