Five Minnesota school districts have paid more than $2 million in salary, benefits and other payments to rid themselves of ineffective employees over the past two years, a Star Tribune analysis shows.
The payouts are emblematic of a system in which the potential for costly litigation often forces districts to seek alternatives to dealing with employees whose behavior is unsatisfactory but does not rise to the level of abrupt firing for incompetence or significant misconduct.
Minneapolis Public Schools paid settlements to 55 such employees, for a total payout of more than $1.1 million over two years. In one instance, a social worker was paid to leave after nearly 10 years of allegations that he had skipped parent meetings, put a child in an inappropriate hold and offended administrators with sexually explicit language.
District officials declined to comment, but officials in other school systems say the settlements are a necessary part of managing and improving the district amid the restrictions of union contracts and federal law. The process of getting rid of ineffective employees, even those with documented disciplinary problems, often is dragged out for years and can cost thousands of dollars in legal fees and employee time, officials said.
Figures have been calculated using single-person health insurance rates. Some employees may have purchased family health insurance, meaning the payout from the district would have been more.
“Districts are making a judgment and find the least expensive way to settle the issues, ” said Scott Croonquist, the executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts.
The practice of paying employees to leave instead of building a case to fire them is fairly common among districts around the country. Stringent employment laws and teacher tenure protections make it difficult for districts to get rid of ineffective employees, said Kate Walsh, executive director of the National Council on Teacher Quality. She said districts are attempting to maneuver around the contours of strong union contracts.
The districts of Bloomington and Minnetonka had no buyouts reported in selected years
“They make it so hard to do it properly, ” she said. “It does end up being cheaper for districts to do these buyouts.”
Walsh and other teacher tenure critics say the payouts illustrate a need for changes that make it easier and less costly to remove ineffective teachers and staff.
“Education is not a business,” said Latasha Gandy, program director for Students for Education Reform in Minnesota. “We can’t say these payouts are a good situation.”
The Star Tribune reviewed settlements for Minneapolis, St. Paul, Anoka-Hennepin, Osseo and Brooklyn Center from January 2013 to April 2015. The review found wide differences in how aggressive districts are in using settlements to induce teachers and staff to leave.
While Minneapolis used settlements to shed 55 employees, officials from Minnetonka and Bloomington schools did not have one payout over the past two years.
Brooklyn Center had two settlements, including a $150,000 payout to resolve a discrimination dispute and get rid of an employee after six months. But across districts, the majority of the agreements were with employees — often teachers — the districts no longer wanted to employ.
Figures for the top 3 districts only.
Despite that, some of those employees were often allowed to work for months, even years, before resigning or retiring. The Star Tribune calculated the cost of the separation agreements to include salary and benefits from the time the agreement was signed until when the employee actually left the district.
In Anoka-Hennepin, a teacher was allowed to work for more than a year after she had agreed to leave, following complaints that she made racially charged statements about students. At Sand Creek Elementary school, a teacher with a disciplinary record continued to work as a substitute for two years after administrators forced her removal from the regular classroom.
Often employees who received the settlements had a history of alleged misconduct. In Anoka-Hennepin schools, the three employees who received the most money in salary and benefits all had disciplinary records, including allegations of swatting a student with a pencil and making racially charged comments about students.
‘I’m owed a lot more’
In Minneapolis, the payouts include settlements with top executives, such as technology director Rich Valerga and Principal Lorraine Cruz. Valerga got $10,000 in outplacement services to help him find another job as part of his settlement.
The highest payout went to Thomas Feri, a social worker at Minneapolis’ Patrick Henry High School. In February, he received eight months of salary and health insurance totaling about $65,000. Feri said in an interview that he is no longer working at Henry or any other school.
Feri’s personnel file shows two documented discipline actions. He was suspended in 2013 for failing to attend a special education meeting for a student, using an “inappropriate hold” on a student and not responding to a parent’s request. Feri disputes that record, saying the principal had been trying to get rid of him for years.
The other offense was a written reprimand in 2006, when the principal at Lucy Craft Laney Community School claimed Feri made sexual remarks, including saying “I blew my wad” during a meeting.
Feri doesn’t dispute that incident, but said the remark was not sexual, simply an indication that he had exhausted all of his options. Feri said he had no idea the letter was in his file, which he says is indicative of what he called the deceptive nature of the district.
Feri said he became fed up with how the district had been treating him in the past few years and gave district officials two options: Face a lawsuit or pay him for the last eight months of his career.
“I didn’t get fired. I told them they were buying me out. I seriously think I’m owed a lot more,” Feri said, adding that “it seemed illogical and not moral to go after that money.”
Minneapolis district officials declined to comment on any of the settlements or separation agreements.
Officials with the Minneapolis teachers union said the agreements are always a negotiated process and part of an employee’s right to due process.
Lynn Nordgren, the union’s president, said many employees are removed from the district without going through a buyout process. Looking at the number of settlements and what they cost the district “doesn’t always tell the story,” she said.
Nordgren said the union works hard to ensure the best teacher is in front of every student in the district. “We are humans. It’s a human process, and there will be errors or mistakes that are made, ” she said. “This is about how we move forward and rectify this, and those solutions vary.”
The Osseo district spent the least amount on settlements, giving more than $63,000 in salaries and benefits to 11 employees who left. Unlike settlements in Anoka-Hennepin, Minneapolis, St. Paul or Brooklyn Center, almost all employees who signed an agreement to leave left immediately. This kept salary costs low for the district.
Margaret Westin, general counsel for the Osseo school district, said by the time an employee gets to the point that they are discussing a separation agreement, it is a last resort after a lengthy process of training, mentoring and coaching an employee. She said the cost of going through a contested termination can be a yearlong process, with thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees and staff time.
Anoka-Hennepin, the state’s largest district, paid more than $570,000 to 14 employees. The Sand Creek teacher who was removed from the classroom but allowed to substitute was making more than $70,000. By the time she resigns in June 2016, the district will have spent more than $160,000 in salary and insurance benefits.
An Anoka-Hennepin official said every case is different and there is no general policy for when the district will pay an employee to leave.
“The general rule is that the district does not prefer to use public dollars on settlements,” said district spokesman James Skelly. “But inevitably, this happened. It’s not something the district is interested in doing as a normal course of business.”