Superintendent’s departure raises questions, but presents opportunities

The process of replacing a leader is often unpleasant, but changes at the top also present opportunities for moving in new directions.

The departure of Lebanon schools Supt. Rob Hess after a closed-door meeting among School Board members on Tuesday, June 12, leaves the board with the responsibility of choosing a new path for local schools by finding someone who they think will take the district in the direction they (and presumably the people who voted for them) desire.

Frankly, we have sympathies with members of the public who questioned the manner in which this was done at Thursday’s School Board meeting (see page 19). The fact that there was no explanation, other than a carefully worded, bland statement about how much Hess’s contributions are appreciated, leaves all of us searching for answers.

Regardless of whatever concerns school board members have about Hess’s performance, this back-room procedure isn’t healthy for the public.

It’s become commonplace for top executives to depart in this way. It happened down the road in Sweet Home a couple of years ago when new City Council members decided to part ways with a city manager of  nearly 20 years.

For one thing, if there is no public discussion of the issue, no public written evaluation of the individual who, runs the school district, we think it’s a legitimate question how three school board members reached a consensus that it was time to part ways with Hess.

In February, Lebanon School Board members gave Hess a new contract that allowed him the option of living outside the district – and included  “new language allowing for termination without cause…including a provision for liquidated damages that limits the district’s liability to 12 months of pay.”

That contract, of course, is why Hess is getting a quarter of a million dollars –  a one-year’s salary-and-benefits package – as a golden parachute.

That might leave a bad taste when one considers how that money could have been used to, say, pay for books, teachers, facility improvements and programs that Hess himself advocated for during his nine years at the helm.

The fact is, though, that’s what happens when the people at the top get shown the door. In today’s world, with the specter of legal action when a chief executive is removed, particularly from a public sector job, paying off the departee is a safe way to avoid a lawsuit.

That’s the unfortunate reality and the  losers, of course, are ultimately the students.

Board members often are unhappy that they are muzzled by agreements like the one affirmed on June 12, but that’s the deal.

When he asked for his contract to be tweaked earlier this year, Hess had told them he and his new wife, Tonya Cairo, principal of Pioneer School, needed to find a home big enough for their expanded family after they married last summer.

Hess’s relationship with Cairo has drawn criticism and one formal complaint to the school board.

But it hasn’t come up in recent board meetings – at all. So again, there are uncomfortable questions here.

Regardless, the move does open the door, as we noted earlier, for board members who aren’t enthusiastic about what has been happening in the schools, to set a new course.

What do we want our schools to be that they are not?  That’s the question parents, taxpayers and, ultimately, board members have the chance to ponder and then act upon.