Dayton’s school board agreed to override the state standard and pay outgoing superintendent Lori Ward for all of her unused leave, turning what would have been a low-five-figure settlement into a $149,767 payout – almost exactly one year’s base salary.
Ward and school board President Adil Baguirov signed a settlement agreement April 13, calling for the board to pay Ward “all personal, vacation and sick leave accumulated as of that date.” The full school board voted 6-0 on June 25, “authorizing the Treasurer to comply with said agreement.”
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Ward had 12 unused vacation days and four unused personal days, but the 21-year DPS employee carried a huge balance of 243.6 unused sick days, worth $140,537, according to DPS Treasurer Craig Jones.
A spokesman for Auditor of State Dave Yost said the auditor’s office would need to review the details of the deal more closely, but added that “the settlement agreement alone is not necessarily sufficient” to make the payout.
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“This expenditure is something our team will review in the next audit,” Auditor’s spokesman Ben Marrison said Tuesday. “A payout such as this must have a proper public purpose and also must pass the abuse standard, which is whether a rational, ordinary person would think it’s an appropriate expenditure.”
Ohio law generally calls for unused sick leave payouts to be capped at 30 days’ worth, but notes that local government agencies “may adopt a policy allowing an employee to receive payment for more …”
DPS does not have a board policy to that extent, but it approved payment of all of Ward’s unused days via the settlement agreement, making the total separation payout just shy of her $150,000 annual salary.
Ward said Tuesday that it was important to her to be paid for all of her paid leave on file. She said that was her offer to the board, and the board accepted. Ward said there was no threat of litigation from either side.
Baguirov cited the importance of the work Ward did in the two-plus months after the agreement was signed.
“The board utilized its discretion when negotiating an agreement with Ms. Ward, who was continuously employed at DPS for many years, and who not only left on good terms, but made sure the transition for her successor is as smooth as possible in such a large and complex district,” Baguirov said.
Asked whether it was legal to handle the payment via a settlement rather than a board policy, the Ohio Department of Education did not comment, referring questions to the Attorney General’s office. A spokeswoman for Mike DeWine would say only that the AG’s office had never issued a legal opinion on this topic.
Greg Lawson, senior policy analyst for the right-leaning Buckeye Institute, said agreements like this are “far from unique,” but he said the dollar amount in this case is high.
“We generally don’t look upon those positively, especially something where you’re making six figures in sick pay,” Lawson said. “A golden parachute (for a departing CEO) in the private sector is the closest analogy, but you don’t want to see that being done with taxpayer dollars.”
Lawson suggested the possibility of making the 30-day reference in Ohio law into a hard cap so governments and schools “avoid the temptation” to make extra payouts.
“Is $100,000 going to break the school district? Of course it’s not,” Lawson said. “But when you’re doing those kind of activities, it raises questions about how seriously people take the spending.”
Three months after failing to reach a new contract with Ward, Baguirov praised her work ethic, and cited that as the reason for her high sick leave balance.
“Superintendent Ward worked very hard over some two decades for the district, did not take much vacation or sick days, so it’s no wonder she has accrued a lot of unused vacation days, sick days, and personal days,” he said.
The Cleveland Metropolitan School District announced Tuesday that Ward will take over its role of Interim Chief Talent Officer beginning Aug. 22, as the district searches for someone to fill that job permanently.
Cleveland schools CEO Eric Gordon said in a message to district leaders that while Ward does not have a background in human resources, she is “a strong organizational leader who will ably coordinate the work of the various talent divisions and who will work well with me and our Chiefs to integrate that work into the broader district strategy.”
Ward spent more than two decades in Dayton Public Schools as a classroom teacher, technology director, chief of business operations, deputy superintendent, and the past six years as superintendent.
Prior to that, she spent 13 years with IBM.
“I still have a lot of energy and passion left for urban school systems,” she said Tuesday.