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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

School buyouts: Where can I sign up?

I was pretty envious last month when I learned of the $139,000 buyout the Niskayuna school board awarded former superintendent Susan Kay Salvaggio.

Getting paid six figures to not work struck me as a fantastic arrangement, and I wanted to know where I could get a buyout of my own.

After learning about the $250,000 buyout for Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. Johnsville Central School District superintendent Laura Lawrence, I’m even more curious.

Seriously, where do you sign up?

I won’t defend the Salvaggio buyout, but I will say this: As outrageous as it was, it’s not anywhere near as outrageous as the Lawrence buyout, which is in a whole other stratosphere of ridiculousness.

Insulting as it might be to taxpayers, Salvaggio’s buyout at least seems in line with her $192,000 salary. She was very well paid — the best compensated superintendent in the Capital Region — and her buyout reflects the generosity of her contract and the relative affluence of the community she served. Lawrence’s buyout, on the other hand, seems totally out of whack with her $108,000 salary and her struggling rural district.

Niskayuna’s proposed budget for 2014-15 is $77.3 million; OESJ’s proposed budget for 2014-15 is $18.5 million. Niskayuna has approximately 4,100 public students; OESJ has fewer than 800.
Lawrence was actually one of the lowest-paid superintendents in the area, which makes her buyout especially confounding. According to the separation agreement released last week by the school district, she will receive almost all of the money she was owed under a contract that expires in June 2016. This money comes on top of the $46,000 she received between November and April, when she was placed on paid leave, and the health benefits she’ll continue to receive.

As is typical in buyout situations, details as to what caused the school board to cut ties with their superintendent are hard to come by. It’s unclear why Lawrence was placed on leave last November, just six months after being appointed superintendent, and it’s unclear what exactly caused her rift with the board.

The Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. Johnsville Central School District was created in a merger last year; at that time, Lawrence was superintendent of the St. Johnsville district. One board member, Neil Clark, described the settlement as “inherited debt” from Lawrence’s old district, while her supporters have suggested old district lines and resentments led to her ouster.

Regardless, Lawrence is making out like a bandit.

She has received one of the best buyouts I’ve ever seen — the kind of money you give someone when you want them to keep their mouth closed and vanish from the earth forever. What, if anything, did she do to deserve such a fate? That’s what I’d like to know.

Better idea

In other education-related news, I was interested to learn that a number of local legislators, including Assembly members Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, Phil Steck, D-Colonie, and Patricia Fahy, D-Albany, have introduced legislation that would offer free tuition to students who study at New York public colleges and meet certain criteria.

Back in the winter, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled his controversial — and ultimately doomed — plan to fund free college courses for prisoners, legislators throughout the state shed crocodile tears over the high student-loan burden assumed by the state’s law-abiding, hard-working families to attend college. At the time, I wrote I was pleased to see Cuomo’s proposal had awoken lawmakers to the exorbitant cost of college and that the obvious next step was a statewide conversation on how to make college more affordable.

But I must confess I was being a little sarcastic, and I doubted the sincerity of most of the lawmakers making such a fuss over Cuomo’s prisoner plan. And when the state budget passed last month kept funding for SUNY flat, I wasn’t at all surprised. So it’s nice to see a handful of lawmakers unveil a plan to reward deserving students with free tuition.

Under the plan, called Tuition-Free NY, qualifying students would receive free tuition to two- and four-year SUNY and CUNY schools in exchange for performing community service and agreeing to work and live in New York upon graduation. Any student who failed to meet these conditions would see their free tuition become a loan.

I like the basic concept of this program. The big question, as always, is whether the state can afford it. But I’d like to look at that question from another angle: Can we afford to keep saddling young adults with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and watching them struggle to get ahead? At some point, this unsustainable practice is going to catch up with us.

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