Seven senior administrators in the Baltimore City school system are being offered $10,000 each to stay through June to assist with the transition to a new administration — an expense that school officials say is the price of maintaining stability.
The "retention stipends" were proposed by interim CEO Tisha Edwards after two key members of former city schools chief Andrés Alonso's administration resigned last month.
"In other urban districts, the superintendent leaves and everything is back to ground zero — that has not happened in Baltimore," said Edwards, who signed a contract to serve as interim CEO until June 2014. "But it's natural to have movement, which we've already seen, and we're trying to build some safeguards around that."
Other Baltimore-area school districts that have interim superintendents, including Anne Arundel and Harford counties, said they have no plans to offer incentives to retain senior staff.
Edwards said the stipends, which will be offered to seven department heads, are intended to reward executives for helping preserve academic reforms and other efforts underway and lay a foundation for the next administration. She said they are not considered bonuses because they are not tied to previous performance.
To receive the full stipend, executives not only have to remain in their jobs through June but also compile lengthy transition reports for the school board and the next superintendent.
"All of this work is very complex, and there are a lot of stakeholders involved," Edwards said. "It would very difficult to come in and not have the resources, people and information to continue to move this work forward."
After Alonso's departure in June, Chief Academic Officer Sonja Santelises left the school system for a job with Washington-based think tank the Education Trust and longtime head of school support Jonathan Brice took a position at the U.S. Department of Education.
The move to give financial incentives to those who remained was lauded by those who say that in cities like Baltimore, where there are so many reforms in motion, it's imperative to keep a team intact.
"It's a pretty good idea for a district like Baltimore that is in the middle of such an important transition," said Mike Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation's large urban school systems.
The school system "wants to hold its team together as well as it can," he said. "If this is a mechanism that helps maintain momentum for Baltimore's reforms, I say good for them."
Edwards cited several reforms — such as the $1 billion plan to rebuild and renovate school facilities, new teacher evaluations, the rollout of an updated curriculum aligned with the "Common Core" standards, and the renewal process for charter schools — that could be disrupted by a lack of continuity.
"The work is so high-stakes right now that we need to have these people moving this work over the next year," said Edwards, who is not eligible for a stipend.
But James Heskett, professor emeritus at Harvard University's business school, has researched retention bonuses in the private sector and found they could "provide an incentive to do nothing." He also said organizations that offer stipends run the risk of creating divisiveness among staff.
While retention incentives are rare in public institutions, he said such stipends are often offered to teachers and principals who commit to working in struggling schools.
"Unless there are trying circumstances, you would think retention bonuses would be less necessary in public circumstances," Heskett said. "The justification has to be made to the public that it's in the best interest of the students."
Casserly said such stipends are often not publicized.
"You don't hear about this being done very often, but the truth of the matter is that other cities will give retention stipends during a transition period; you just don't hear about it," he said.
City school board Chairwoman Shanaysha Sauls said the board supported the stipends because the transition documents to be compiled by the administrators would be a selling point in the board's national search for a new schools chief.
"It's essentially a management audit for a fraction of the cost," Sauls said. "And in terms of recruitment, it is important that Baltimore is signaling stability and strength across the organization."
Sauls said that while the district offered the stipends only to senior management, "We sincerely hope that the individuals in supporting departments don't see this as the district showing a lack of appreciation of really, really hard work."
Jimmy Gittings, president of the administrators union that includes central office staff who weren't offered the stipends, said he understood that Edwards and the board are attempting to maintain stability after losing two senior-level executives.
"Any further resignations could jeopardize some of the work that must go on," Gittings said. "Based on the many things that are in front of all of us, like the Common Core and [union] contract negotiations, we can understand why the stipends are necessary."
Those eligible for the stipends include the chief of staff, chief financial officer, human capital officer, executive director of new initiatives, executive director of engagement, operations officer and the chief technology officer.
The officers, whose annual salaries range from $131,000 to $175,000, will be paid with salary savings in the district's operating budget, Edwards said.
Edwards said the decision to stay on has been a "hard, personal choice" for some top-level officials as they brace for inevitable changes that come with a new administration.
"With these stipends, we are trying to communicate to the cabinet members who are committed to the transition that we're committed to them and to their work," she said.
The executive officers will receive a payment of $5,000 if they stay in their positions through Jan. 1 and submit a "management oversight report" that outlines the ins and outs of departmental operations.
The other $5,000 will be paid if they stay in their positions through June 1 and produce a "succession report" that identifies staff within departments who can be groomed for promotion.
"It's not just 'You get it for staying' — that's not good enough," Edwards said. "This is about being invested even after you're gone."
Positions eligible for stipends
The following school system administrators are eligible for the retention stipends:
Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, interim chief of staff
Victor De La Paz, chief financial officer
Kimberly Lewis, human capital officer
Alison Perkins-Cohen, executive director of new initiatives
Michael Sarbanes, executive director of engagement
Keith Scroggins, operations officer
Kenneth Thompson, chief technology officer
neth Thompson, chief technology officerCopyright © 2015, CT Now