Our View: 4-year contract questionable

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The decision by the Steamboat Springs School Board to extend Superintendent Donna Howell's contract undoubtedly raised eyebrows.

Of particular concern is that the new contract is guaranteed for the full four years; whereas the previous contract allowed the School Board to buy out Howell's contract for one year's salary. The new deal means the cost to change superintendents just went from $138,570 to as much as $500,000. That's a significant change for future school boards to absorb.

We certainly would not advise changing superintendents given Howell's accomplishments. Since her hiring in 2003, Howell has negotiated a favorable settlement to the Montessori charter school squabble, successfully steered the district through a legislative challenge to its half-cent sales tax, restructured the district's administration, completed a sorely needed remodel of the administrative offices and maintained the district's standard of excellence on the state's school accountability reports.

We think Howell's $138,570 salary is fair. She oversees one of the largest employers in Routt County and is accountable for the performance of nearly 2,000 students. She should be compensated as one of the top executives in the community. Most importantly, her compensation is comparable to her peers at 11 districts similar to Steamboat Springs in size and performance. A survey of those superintendents put their average salaries between $128,752 for those with the least experience to $142,304 for those with the most experience.

Jana Caldwell of the Colorado Association of School Executives said most of the state's superintendents have two- or three-year contracts. Four-year deals are "unusual but not unheard of," Caldwell said. We think Howell has earned the additional year.

Nationwide, there is a shortage of school superintendents, due in no small part to the political vulnerability of the position. As a result, superintendent salaries have risen dramatically this decade and so have additional perks, including annuities, health insurance, housing allowances and car allowances.

Howell's new contract eliminates a lot of the vulnerability she will face in the coming years. She committed to remain in her position through the 2008-09 school year, the time she said it takes to have a sustained effect on the district. In exchange, she thinks the board should make an equal commitment to her.

It's hard to fault Howell for making every effort to negotiate the best contract possible. But the Steamboat Springs School Board has no greater responsibility than hiring and directing its superintendent. In such an environment, board members up for re-election should be prepared to defend significant decisions affecting the superintendent's employment or leave the decision to a future board.

In this case, the two board members up for re-election this fall -- Paula Stephenson and Tami Havener -- have said they won't run again. Stephenson and Havener joined Pat Gleason and Michael Loomis in voting for Howell's contract. Board member Jeff Troeger abstained because of issues he has with aspects of the contract.

We support the direction Howell is taking the district, and, at this time, we see no reason why she shouldn't be superintendent through the 2008-09 school year. But the decision to guarantee four years instead of one is no small step. Better for such a significant change to be made by board members on their way in instead of those on their way out.

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