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Cost to fire Berman would have been high.

Byline: Josephine Woolington The Register-Guard

If the Eugene School Board had fired Superintendent Sheldon Berman last summer, the school district most likely would have had to pay him at least $443,000 because of language in the contract the board had signed with him, school board Chairman Jim Torrey said.

Torrey said the board did not have a compelling reason to fire Berman, despite emails from board members last year that showed some members were dissatisfied with him and felt they may have had legal cause to fire him.

The emails, inadvertently released to The Register-Guard, show that the board secretly negotiated a resignation agreement with Berman - but do not reveal that board members talked about having to pay Berman a hefty severance payment if the board fired him without cause.

At a school board meeting last week, Torrey publicly discussed the board's financial rationale for the first time.

Berman's contract gave the board authority to unilaterally fire him without cause. Such an action, however, would carry a big price tag for taxpayers, according to the 2011 contract signed by Berman and Craig Smith, who was board chairman at the time.

Torrey said that if the board had gone that route, the district would have had to pay Berman two years' worth of his salary, or about $428,919. In addition, the district would have had to pay Berman two years' worth of a tax-sheltered annuity - which totals $600 a month - and other fringe benefits, but not health care or retirement benefits. That would have brought the total buyout to $443,319.

The severance formula is spelled out in the contract.

The board last summer also could have voted not to extend Berman's contract, but that still would have allowed Berman to stay on the job for two school years, according to his contract. That's because his three-year contract has a clause automatically renewing it annually, so whenever it is terminated, there is always at least two years left. They also could have fired him "with cause" if they felt they had met the legal threshold to do so.

Incoming Superintendent Gustavo Balderas' contract, by contrast, does not contain a provision that would allow the board to terminate him without cause in exchange for a hefty severance payment, known as a "golden parachute."

Oregon law prohibits school districts from giving payments to school administrators for work that they are not doing.

Christine Nesbit, the Eugene district's associate director of human resources, said Berman's contract, which required the board to pay liquidated damages if it fired Berman without cause, does not fall under Oregon's "golden parachute" prohibition. She declined to elaborate on how that is so.

The school board omitted a similar clause in Balderas' contract to avoid getting caught in the same situation, Torrey said.

Under the Balderas contract, the board can fire him under six scenarios: If it opts not to renew his 260-day-a-year, three-year, automatically renewing contract; if Balderas resigns; if Balderas and the board mutually agree to terminate the contract; if the board fires him for cause; if Balderas has a disability that prevents him from doing his job; or if Balderas dies.

If the board didn't renew Balderas' contract, he could still hold the job for two years because his contract is a three-year continuing contract, like Berman's.

Balderas will be paid a base salary of $185,000 to lead the district - down from his current $215,000-a-year salary as superintendent of Ocean View School District in Huntington Beach, Calif.

Balderas' salary figure doesn't include the value of the health care benefits he will receive, plus an amount equal to 6 percent of his salary that the district will pay for him into the Public Employees Retirement System. Berman is being paid $209,229 in his last year as Eugene superintendent but does not receive district-provided health care or PERS benefits.

Balderas will receive a 5 percent annual salary "step" increase in each of his first five years, and also any cost-of-living increase also given to other administrators, should his contract be rolled over beyond its initial three years. After five years, he would receive either a 2.75 percent salary increase or an increase equal to what other administrators receive, whichever is greater, according to his contract.

In addition, Balderas will receive 25 vacation days; 10 paid days to attend conferences or trainings; $600 a month to a tax-sheltered annuity; $2,000 a year to attend trainings; a $550-per-month auto allowance stipend; a district-provided cellphone or stipend to pay for cellphone use; and $15,000 for moving costs.

Follow Josephine on Twitter @j_woolington. Email
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Title Annotation:Eugene School District; The superintendent was owed $443,000 if he was terminated without cause
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 14, 2015
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