Pennsylvania school superintendent buyout legislation moves in Harrisburg

You have to appreciate Johnstown.

First, this is the town that inspired the 1977 movie "Slap Shot," filmed in Johnstown and based on the real Johnstown Jets of the old North American Hockey League.

Two of the actors portraying the movie's infamously brutal Hanson brothers trio were actually Jeff and Steve Carlson of the infamous real-life Carlson brothers trio, who played for the Jets (and actually wore long hair and thick glasses there).

In the movie, the third Hanson goon was played by former Jet goon Dave Hanson. (The toy cars the Hanson brothers played with in the movie, by the way, were the actual toy cars the Carlsons had when they were with the Johnstown Jets.)

Second, every June, Johnstown is the site of Pennsylvania's biggest motorcycle rally, which attracts 170,000 bikers. (I still have my old "Thunder in the Valley" T-shirt.)

Third, Johnstown took taxpayers in Allentown off the hook by hiring Gerald Zahorchak as school superintendent.

When Zahorchak left the Allentown School District last August, after only 13 months on the job, he was given a $50,000 going-away present plus a $195,000-a-year salary for doing — well, it was not exactly made clear what he did. I'm not going to say it was $245,000 for doing nothing, but whatever he did, it was the suckers who pay school taxes who got stuck with the tab.

Then, in March, taxpayers got the happy news that Zahorchak would not be needing that big salary any longer. He was hired as superintendent by the Greater Johnstown School Board, which put the kibosh on the remainder of his deal with Allentown.

That's nice, but some people are sick of such deals, especially in a school district that claims to be desperate for funds.

Allentown is not alone. Philadelphia gave its, um, problematic superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, $905,000 just to make her go away, and two school districts in York County paid their departing superintendents a total of $390,000 after giving them the heave-ho. Such deals have become all too common across the state.

This month, the Pennsylvania House started action on a Senate-passed measure that, according to its chief sponsor, state Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin and York, "limits generous contract buyouts to departing school district superintendents."

Senate Bill 1296 also would prevent certain cozy financial deals between school boards and their superintendents from being kept secret. It would make contract details subject to the state's Right-to-Know Law, which represents an upheaval, especially in districts like Allentown.

Other parts of Piccola's bill, passed by the Senate late last month, would limit the length of such contracts to three years for new superintendents and assistants and would limit the amount of money a departing superintendent can grab as compensation for sick time. (They now can get tens of thousands of dollars for unused sick pay, including that credited from employment in previous school districts.)

In a development that is very odd for Harrisburg, the Republican Piccola singled out a Democrat, state Auditor General Jack Wagner, for high praise. "I commend the auditor general for … exposing these buyouts that have been increasingly and justifiably the subject of taxpayer ire," Piccola said in a May 1 press release. "He clearly identified a pattern warranting legislative action."

Wagner has made noise about scandalous superintendent buyouts for years, with special emphasis on Philadelphia and Allentown. He also spotlighted a buyout in Lehighton that exceeded $150,000.

"Superintendent buyouts send a message to the public that the leadership in these school districts are out of touch with taxpayers and are not careful stewards of taxpayer dollars," Wagner said last year.

He also pointed out that the fabulous financial deals for superintendents in Philadelphia and Allentown involved "two districts [that] have announced significant classroom cutbacks because of declining financial support from state government."

One co-sponsor of SB 1296 is state Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Lehigh, Northampton and Monroe, who discussed some other proposed changes. "If [there is] less than two years before the contract ends, you [a superintendent] can't get more than half of a year of benefits," she told me.

If that limit had been in effect when Zahorchak was hired, I asked, would it have affected his juicy $245,000 arrangement?

"Yeah," Boscola said.

She stressed that the Right-to-Know provision "is critical, because you guys [news types] can look at those contracts. … It has been in the press a lot about these outrageous severance packages."

Boscola was encouraged that the measure passed by a 44-0 vote in the Senate last month, and action on it began in the House on May 9 with passage by the House Education Committee. She said she's hopeful final passage will come before the state budget process next month.

If the reforms are enacted, we'll need an effective process to enforce them.

I suggest that every time members of a school board try to finagle a sneaky contract to pay a superintendent a fabulous fortune for doing nothing, we send the Hanson/Carlson brothers to deal with them.

paul.carpenter@mcall.com 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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