Wilson’s severance includes cash settlement of over $296k

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

The total cash value of outgoing Claremont Unified School District Superintendent Jeff Wilson’s severance package will very likely exceed $300,000.

Wilson’s separation agreement includes a guaranteed cash settlement of $296,818, representing 12 months of salary, up to a year of health benefits worth up to $8,050, and a cash out of unused vacation time after Wilson’s final day on July 1.

Wilson was fired March 17 “without cause,” just nine months into a three-year contract. Both Wilson’s separation agreement and contract are posted on the COURIER website.

The district’s board of education re-hired superintendent Jim Elsasser, who had guided CUSD for nearly nine years prior to Wilson’s short tenure, at its April 21 meeting. Elsasser will be paid $335,000 per year plus a generous benefit package. The new contract, viewable on the COURIER’s website, represents a $31,604 raise over Elsasser’s previous contract with the district in 2020, which is also available at claremont-courier.com.

As we reported last Friday, CUSD’s April 21 board meeting was striking in that the public comments related to the superintendent issue grew quite heated.

That story is at https://claremont-courier.com/schools/elsasser-back-at-cusd-board-accused-of-lack-of-transparency-65106/.

Most commenters expressed disappointment and anger about a perceived lack of transparency regarding the circumstances and timing of the firing and hiring of the outgoing and old/new superintendents. Both Wilson and Elsasser are older white men, and many also decried what they saw as a lack of consideration for a woman or person of color for the job.

The COURIER filed a Freedom of Information Act request with CUSD Monday, April 18, seeking the financial details of Wilson’s firing, which are public record. The district responded to the request the morning after the April 21 meeting in which it voted to hire Elsasser.

Wilson’s nine-page separation agreement is, as expected, long on legalese. Much of the language focuses on making clear it is the final bit of business between CUSD and Wilson, and that neither party will sue the other going forward.

It also contains answers to several questions the board left unanswered over the past two weeks, including the overall value of Wilson’s severance, but also heretofore unreported details of his firing.

The board approved Wilson’s firing in a unanimous 5-0 vote at a March 17 closed session. The document was signed by Wilson and his lawyer, David Bristol, on that date. Board president Steven Llanusa signed the separation agreement March 18, and CUSD’s lawyer Alexandria M. Davidson followed suit on March 22.

One of the key questions surrounding the district’s ongoing superintendent drama is whether the board was made aware of Elsasser’s availability and/or interest in the CUSD job prior to its decision to fire Wilson, primarily because the district did not entertain any other candidates for the coveted job, nor did it advertise the position or open it up other applicants.

It also negotiated the deal with Elsasser behind closed doors, without any public input. The first time the public was made aware Elsasser was set to return was on Monday, April 18, when the CUSD Board of Education posted the agenda for its upcoming April 21 meeting.

But all of this, while concerning to many CUSD constituents — many of whom have made their objections clear since the COURIER first began reporting on this following Wilson’s April 1 announcement that he was leaving the district — is presumably perfectly legal.

“It is likely okay for them to not answer questions about whether they considered diversity of candidates, to the extent that this reflects their deliberation process,” said First Amendment Coalition lawyer Monica Price in an email to the COURIER. “There is probably a way they could answer this question if they wanted to, but they may be wary of a lawsuit or implying that race/nationality/etc. was a factor in someone’s selection (or not).”

Price explained that under California Government Code section 54957.1(a), after closed session, the public has a right to hear oral reports of certain actions taken in closed session (and the vote on those actions) at an open session held afterwards. Under Government Code section 54953(c)(3), prior to a final vote, the public also has a right to hear an oral report of a summary of a recommendation for a final action on the salaries, salary schedules, or compensation paid in the form of fringe benefits of a local agency executive during the open meeting in which the final action is to be taken.

Additionally, per the 1953 Brown Act, which was authored by California Assemblymember Ralph M. Brown and guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies, all topics discussed by CUSD’s Board of Directors at a meeting must be on the agenda. But the state law does not preclude school boards from choosing to answer questions during public comment.

“However, it is not a violation of the Brown Act for members of the board to briefly answer questions asked during public comments,” Price said.

All of the public comment at the April 21 meeting had to do with the superintendent issue, and most of it cited frustration with the board’s refusal to answer questions from the public, even about non-confidential items such as procedural information about how superintendents are hired.

When asked at the conclusion of last week’s board meeting how the timing of Wilson’s departure and Elsasser’s re-hiring went down, Llanusa said, “On the advice of legal counsel, because it is a personnel matter, I cannot discuss privileged information. That’s all I’m prepared to say at this time.”

The COURIER reached out again to Llanusa and the rest of the school board on Monday via email, with no response. We also left Llanusa a voicemail and sent him a text with the same result. We followed up with another email to the entire board on Tuesday, and another text Llanusa. At press time we had not received a single to response from any of the board members.

California Newspaper Publishers Association Lead Counsel Brittney Barsotti agreed with Price, her colleague at the First Amendment Coalition, in that school boards are within their rights to refuse to comment or answer questions from the public during their meetings. But, she said, just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s right.

“A large part of how and why our democracy functions is that those entrusted with power are responsive to the constituents that they represent,” Barsotti said. “But that may not always be the case.”

Meanwhile, quantifying the dollar value of Wilson’s health coverage as part of his severance package is not a straightforward exercise.

“Benefits coverage costs is a bit complicated so here is some detail,” said CUSD Assistant Superintendent, Human Resources Kevin Ward in an email to the COURIER. “CUSD pays premiums/employee contribution on a 10 months (Sept – June) cycle. Ten months is the schedule that many employees work, the school year, so that cycle matched up with paychecks. CUSD staff have an employee contribution for health benefits.

“Those premiums/employee contributions pay for 12 months of coverage. So, the premium/employee contribution payments made during the 21-22 school year cover an employee until the end of September 2022. If Jeff does not take a position that has health benefits, the cost will be $805 per month for 10 months. That will start in October and continue through July. So, the District may pay up to $8,050 for a full 12 months of coverage. We anticipate a slight rate increase (2-3%) on Health and Welfare Benefits in January, when the new policy/rates are implemented but that will only have impact on the remaining months of the coverage period.”

All this to say the final tally for what taxpayers will pay Wilson to walk away from the final two years of his three-year contract will not be available until well after his final day on the job, July 1.

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