DENVER (CBS4) - In the midst of excruciating budget cuts, dozens of highly-compensated administrators in the Adams County District 50 Schools saw their yearly allowance for “professional development” nearly quadruple; a yearly stipend they are allowed to pocket as cash.
“Employee benefits are re-evaluated every year. This benefit was determined to be appropriate,” said Steve Saunders, a spokesperson for District 50.
But school board member Sharon Whitehair says she is outraged to see administrators’ benefits increasing in the current budget climate.
“Very infuriating, it is, I’ve got to admit it,” said Whitehair when she saw what the CBS4 investigation had found. “Obviously I don’t condone those actions. I don’t believe those actions were appropriate given the circumstances we are in with our budget.”
The district, with about 10,000 students, has been under budget pressure for several years and is trying to come up with roughly $5 million in cuts in next year’s budget. Furloughs, a four-day school week, and other extreme measures are being considered to make up the shortfall. The district says it’s been cutting about 10 percent a year for several years and says salaries for district administrators have been frozen.
But CBS4 found one thing that was not cut was a yearly allowance for 45 administrators for “professional development.” The CBS4 investigation found that the stipend, which administrators can take as a cash payout, was actually increased. Since 2002 the district has allotted $800 annually per administrator for professional development.
Administrators could use the money to attend conferences, buy educational equipment, or pay for memberships in professional associations. But they have also been given the option of simply taking the professional development money as additional salary.
A review of district records for the last two school years shows that the majority of administrators have elected to pocket the professional development money. What they do with it from there is not always known to the district. And as budgets got tighter and cuts got sharper, the annual allowance for professional development jumped.
Sometime in early 2010, district administrators decided the professional development for top managers was lagging and should increase from $800 per year to $3,000 per year. Additionally, 19 middle managers, who had not previously received professional development allowances, were suddenly awarded $1,500 per year for professional development that they can cash in.
“It should never have happened,” Whitehair said. “I would call it a bonus. If you have the option to take it as a cash payment, what else would you call that?”
Whitehair says the $163,000 allotted for professional development for administrators in the 2010-2011 school year should have been used to hire additional teachers.
Some administrators — who typically make between $80,000 to $100,000 per year — had the district pay for professional memberships or a conference. As to the majority that chose to pocket the funds, Saunders says they may have “paid for professional development dues, goods and services on their own. Accordingly, many employees received professional development funds in salary and then used the salary to pay for dues, goods and services without submitting any reimbursement requests to the district.”
CBS4 asked who decided administrators should be awarded additional professional development monies for this school year. The district responded that the decision to increase the number of administrators getting PD funds, and the increased amounts, were made by an informal organization called “Meet and Confer,” which is made up of building administrators, principals and assistant principals — the same people who benefitted from the increased professional development stipends. The district said it could not provide names, precise dates or any other details on when the decision was made to hike professional development allowances.
Asked why the allowances quadrupled in a time of extreme budget pressure, District 50 Superintendent Dr. Roberta Selleck said “actually that had existed since 2002 and it had never been adjusted. We provide for professional development for all staff members … that was a benefit for our employees for this school year.”
Assistant Superintendent Kirk LeDay said, “This was just a small benefit.” Asked why the district allows administrators to take the funds in salary, Leday said, “It’s a little more convenient to take it in cash than go to the district to get reimbursement.”
About a week after the CBS4 investigation began, Adams County School District 50 announced the program would be halted later this year. In a memo dated March 21, sent to district administrators, Leday wrote, “At this time, we have decided to suspend the professional development benefits effective July 1, 2011. We hope under different economic conditions that we will be able to reinstate the benefit in the future.”
The district is still obligated to pay the increased professional development benefits to a total of 64 administrators for the current school year.
Leday and other administrators insist the suspension of the benefits had nothing to do with the CBS4 probe. The assistant superintendent said the decision to suspend the program was made in November or December of 2010, but just wasn’t announced until March 21, after CBS4 began asking questions.
Whitehair is suspicious of the timing of the district’s announcement.
“If we did not know about this and this continued on, I doubt seriously that would have been suspended. You putting pressure on them — that was the reason they came to this decision,” Whitehair said.
The mechanism of allowing school administrators to take professional development money as additional salary seems to be unusual. CBS4 checked with multiple school districts for their policies on professional development stipends and how the money is distributed. The Cherry Creek School District allots $1,000 per year for 142 administrators to use for professional development. The district suspended the benefit in July 2010 when it became clear budget issues were looming, according district spokesperson Tustin Amole.
“The professional growth amount ($1,000) has been suspended as part of the budget reductions for this year. At no point was it available to take as cash,” Amole wrote.
A spokesman for Denver Public Schools, Michael Vaughn, says if an administrator wants to attend a conference or acquire some sort of professional development, they ask their supervisor if there is money in the budget.
“Any training that our employees get is through departmental budgets and must be approved by their directors … or in case of PD for chiefs, by chief of staff or superintendent. No PD money goes straight to employees.” Vaughn wrote in an e-mail.
The Jefferson County School district “does not allocate funds for professional development to district employees,” said Lynn Setzer, a district spokesperson.
At the Thompson Valley School District, $1,700 is budgeted each year for professional growth for principals. District spokesperson Wes Fothergill said, “It’s intended for their professional growth and it cannot be cashed out as compensation.”