In Divided Vote, Board Denies Merit Pay Raise To Superintendent Cash

By CHRIS BURRELL

For the first time in his eight-year tenure here, Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash failed this week to win the school board’s backing for a merit pay increase.

Against a backdrop of persistent criticism of school leadership, the All-Island School Committee commended Mr. Cash for achieving his work goals last year but then deadlocked over whether to grant the two per cent bonus for “outstanding performance” as spelled out in his contract.

The vote split the committee down the middle — six to six — following a rugged debate which made it clear that the school system is still reeling from the after-shocks of this summer’s scandal in the high school culinary arts program.

While no one uttered the name of Peter Koines — the teacher who admitted in August that he stole thousands of dollars worth of student funds, kitchen gear and pie fixings — board members during Monday’s three and a half hour meeting made no attempt to disguise the stress on the schools in the aftermath of the criminal case.

“The integrity of the school system has been tarnished,” said school committee member Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, arguing against the bonus for Mr. Cash.

“People’s confidence in the school system has eroded and so has people’s trust in the superintendent’s office,” added Mr. Manter, who is from West Tisbury. “I don’t think his approval rating is very high.”

Last month when the regional high school committee met for the first time to discuss the Koines case in public, nearly 100 Islanders turned out, calling for compassion for Mr. Koines while criticizing Mr. Cash for his handling of the case and demanding an independent audit of the culinary program.

Last week, the regional high school committee picked up the ball on the audit issue, voting unanimously to request state auditors to comb through the paperwork and issue a ruling on whether the school’s investigation into the thefts was sufficient.

Now, Mr. Cash — the Island’s highest-paid public servant with an annual salary this year of $129,423 — is feeling some of the heat, but this time from his own school board, which has consistently fallen in line behind him since he came to the Island in 1995.

In each of the last seven years, they have granted him merit bonuses. Combined with automatic contractual raises of five per cent per year, he has thereby increased his base pay by as much as nine per cent in a year — and boosted his starting annual salary of $75,000 by more than 72 per cent.

Last year, after Mr. Cash turned down a superintendent’s post in Charlottesville, Va. — at a base pay of $120,000 — the school committee decided to give him a $5,000 raise on top of the five per cent increase already in his contract.

At the same time, they voted to extend his contract for two years, through June 2006. The merit bonus this year would have meant $2,600 for Mr. Cash.

The merit review process in place over the years has allowed Mr. Cash to write his own evaluation. Each fall he and the board agree on a set of goals for the following year; when review time comes, Mr. Cash submits in writing his assessment of how he has met those goals.

Until now, this process went unquestioned. When committee members raised the issue Monday night, All-Island school committee chairman Tim Dobel said, “This is what we’ve done for five or six years.”

This year, there were six stated goals, and Mr. Cash evaluated his performance for each area.

For example, the first goal set by the school committee asked that Mr. Cash “continue the ongoing curriculum alignment and refinement work system-wide.”

Mr. Cash’s evaluation read in part: “Superintendent hired and developed a role description for Emily Broderick, and now Marge Harris, to accomplish the huge but critical task of mapping the curriculum across all elementary schools, grades, levels and subjects.”

Last week, the five members of the personnel subcommittee voted unanimously to commend Mr. Cash for meeting this goal, and in two-sentence written responses, they commended him for meeting the five other goals as well; these included keeping class sizes small, helping all children feel honored, addressing the needs of Brazilian students and setting school safety as a high priority.

But Monday, when Mr. Dobel asked the full, 13-member school committee to accept the subcommittee recommendations, some members objected.

“Why is this such an abbreviated process?” asked Roxanne Ackerman of Aquinnah.

Mr. Manter questioned how the committee could praise Mr. Cash for meeting his goal of supporting the Brazilian student population when a federal civil rights agency had found violations in two Island schools after a parent complaint prompted an investigation last year.

Then Susan Parker, board member from Chilmark, took aim at the process of grading the superintendent.

“Outstanding job performance [is] not something that happens all the time. There’s a problem in a culture that says something is either an A-plus or you fail,” she said, pointing to a gap between simply meeting goals and performing outstanding work.

“To me, it’s a farce,” she added. “I don’t think we can talk through issues of accountability and integrity if there’s no difference between an A-plus and failure.”

Mr. Cash responded to the comments, saying he would welcome a merit pay system that captured the “gradations” of his performance.

“I don’t think it should be taken off the table,” said Mr. Cash. “Other professions have it — what they call bonuses — a way of acknowledging fine work for a difficult job.”

Diane Wall, a committee member from West Tisbury, suggested that tough economic times would justify lowering the merit pay to one per cent. By a one-vote margin, the committee agreed to consider a one per cent bonus.

That hardly dampened the sparring.

“This has been taken for granted. We need to decide whether the performance has been outstanding or not,” said Mr. Manter.

More critiques came from Kathy Logue, another West Tisbury representative. “I’ve never seen a child get a report card with ‘exceeds expectations’ in every single box,” she said. “We lose something. We’re not having a real discussion about areas where there’s a need for improvement.”

But there were also ardent defenses of Mr. Cash.

“Our superintendent has done an excellent job,” said Mr. Dobel. “I don’t think there’s anybody on the Island who works harder at their job than the superintendent.”

“You are very lucky people to have this superintendent,” said Priscilla Sylvia, another school committee member from Oak Bluffs. “I’ve worked under others, and this is a very fine superintendent.”

Mrs. Parker had asked for a secret ballot to decide the merit pay, but Edgartown representative Gail Palacios objected.

When it came time to vote, the decision fell almost cleanly along geographic lines, with all but one up-Island school board member voting not to pay the bonus.

Voting against merit pay for Mr. Cash were Ms. Ackerman, Mr. Manter, Mrs. Parker, Ms. Logue and both Jared Jernegan and Bob Tankard, both from Tisbury.

Supporting the extra pay for Mr. Cash were Ms. Wall, Ms. Palacios, Mrs. Sylvia, Mr. Dobel, Leslie Baynes of Edgartown and Barbara Fortes of Tisbury. After the vote, discussion turned to setting new goals for Mr. Cash and calls for revamping the way the school committee oversees his performance.

“We need to regain the trust,” said Ms. Wall.

Mr. Baynes said a new goal needs to be better communication with the community. “We will have trouble on (town meeting) floor if we don’t get a our act together,” he said.

“We need to be pro-active as opposed to reactive, particularly with the media,” said Ms. Logue.

Mrs. Sylvia introduced the notion of creating a better report card system for the superintendent. “We need a rubric for evaluation,” she said. “It’s not only the goals but how well was the goal achieved.”

Mr. Dobel quickly scheduled a follow-up meeting for Dec. 15 to devise a new assessment tool.

It was past 10 p.m. when Mr. Dobel finally asked for audience input. Fred Condon, a finance committee member from Edgartown, suggested the committee review Mr. Cash on a quarterly basis.

Paul Vanlandingham, a resident of West Tisbury and a culinary arts professor who blew the whistle on Mr. Koines when he came to the high school as part of an accreditation team, suggested that the superintendent should not be writing his own evaluations.

With the clock showing nearly half past ten, Mr. Cash tried putting a positive spin on a grueling evening. “This was a great meeting,” he said. “Evaluation, when thoughtful, is a good tool for improvement.”