Outgoing Lakeville Superintendent Gary Amoroso has received some pointed calls in recent weeks from Lakeville School District residents unhappy with his expensive severance package -- particularly in light of this year's budget cuts of $15.8 million that included closing a school.

At least some of the calls were prompted by lawn signs that popped up near shopping areas and along city streets in recent weeks. The signs, posted anonymously, appeared in the wake of publicity about Amoroso's severance package. It could total $361,000, including unused sick days and health benefits, when he leaves in June to lead the state superintendents' association, the Minnesota Association of School Administrators (MASA).

One of the signs, printed in red letters, read:

"Give it back Gary. Our kids are counting on you."

Said another: "Ask Gary for our kids' $360K back," followed by his phone number at the district headquarters.

One of the signs stood for a while by the district headquarters' driveway on 210th Street in downtown Lakeville. The signs list no sponsoring person or group, and nobody seems to know for sure who posted them.

"My sense is that it is certainly residents who continue to express their disappointment with the size of the severance package," said school board Member Bob Erickson. "It is very troublesome to the community, considering the significant budget cuts we have just gone through."

The severance provision is part of the superintendent's contract, which was approved by the school board in 2009, said Jim Skelly, the only board member to vote against the contract. It provided that even for voluntary departure, Amoroso would receive severance equal to half his $183,000 annual base pay, plus reimbursement for unused sick days and continued health and dental insurance for 10 years.

Such severance provisions with voluntary departure are not unusual for large, metro area districts like Lakeville, said Charlie Kyte, MASA executive director. Amoroso will succeed Kyte in July.

About eight phone messages were left on Amoroso's phone line after the signs started appearing in late April, said Mary Moening, his administrative assistant. She said only one caller left a name, and no return phone numbers were listed.

"I let him know about the calls," she said. Amoroso did not return phone or e-mail messages.

Dan Nelson, a parent who has spoken at school board meetings about fiscal accountability, said he shared "the frustration that big a severance is paid when somebody chooses to leave. It's an incentive to quit," he said. "I think it is as much the board's fault for signing the contract. I think the board probably should have been more attentive to it."

School board Chair Judy Keliher said the severance clause was added after the board saw the positive changes Amoroso made during his first three years. She said the average superintendent leaves in three or four years, and the board wanted to keep a strong administrator rather than engage in expensive searches.

"The board felt it was important to do whatever we could to keep the superintendent in place," Keliher said.

She noted that Amoroso set an example followed by some staff by freezing his own pay in the past two years. He also donated his bonus last year to the Lakeville Education Foundation, she said.

Board members have received a steady stream of e-mails since the severance package became public in March, Skelly said. A few days after Amoroso said he would retire, it was announced that he was taking the top job with MASA.

"I think people are shell-shocked from what Lakeville schools have gone through in the past four months," Skelly said. He noted that the severance issue came after cuts that included the equivalent of more than 90 jobs for 2011-12. Residents "have trouble understanding that," he said, adding, "I don't think public employees should be paid for voluntarily leaving."

Lakeville schools have seen dramatic growth to more than 11,000 students and added a second high school since Amoroso arrived. Of Minnesota's 10 largest districts, Lakeville ranks first in both math and reading proficiency on state-mandated tests, according to MASA.

Teachers had a huge hand in those achievements, said Don Sinner, head of the Lakeville teacher's union. However, although teachers haven't always seen eye-to-eye with Amoroso, he deserves some credit for overseeing such achievement which cutting district budgets in nine of his 10 years, Sinner said. He added:

"A CEO who cuts and cuts over a decade and still gets a better product, they get a bonus."

Jim Adams • 952-707-9996