DAVIDSON, SK -- Frustrated taxpayers in the Davidson school division packed the town hall Wednesday evening demanding answers about how a senior administrator was paid $120,000 to retire only to be re-hired.
"We are the laughing stock of this province for handing out the money," said Steve Prpich of Kenaston.
The Davidson school board was forced to call Wednesday's public meeting after it received a petition signed by about 140 taxpayers. According to provincial law, the board is required to call a public meeting if 25 taxpayers sign such a petition. Several items of discussion was on the agenda but top-of-mind for most was the controversial "retirement gratuity" paid to secretary-treasurer Jeff Alexander.
In June, the school board passed motions accepting the retirement of Alexander, paying him a $120,000 "retirement gratuity," as the board called it, and rehiring him as a contract employee doing the same job he had been performing as a permanent employee.
More than 200 taxpayers attended the meeting where board members and director of education Jeff Finell were peppered with questions about the deal. Alexander was not at the meeting.
Finell and board chair Ross Kadlec maintained the "retirement gratuity" was a prudent fiscal decision.
They pointed to Alexander's contract that included a clause entitling him to one month's salary for each of the 32 years that he'd worked for the division as a severance payment if his position was terminated.
Kadlec told those at the meeting that Alexander approached the board last year with his concern that he would not have a job when Davidson school division amalgamates with another board as mandated by the provincial government. Alexander told the board that in that event, he would be entitled to about $211,000 in severance to be paid by Davidson school division. Kadlec explained at the meeting that Alexander proposed he take a smaller pay-out of $120,000, retire and then be re-hired under contract to continue working as the secretary-treasurer.
"We felt if we could save the division hundreds and some thousands of dollars that that would be a prudent thing to do," said Kadlec.
But those who spoke at the meeting disagreed.
"If someone is willing to take 50 cents on the dollar then maybe they're entitled to nothing," commented one.
"If I saw the end was coming, I would take what I could get too," added another.
Several people wanted clarification on the phrase "retirement gratuity." And they questioned why Alexander's severance clause took effect when he retired.
"This wasn't something contractual," said Dellene Church of Davidson. "Instead of giving Jeff (Alexander) his retirement and a gold watch, we gave him $120,000."
Kadlec said Alexander would not have retired if he wasn't awarded the "retirement gratuity." He would have continued as an employee of the school division until amalgamation took effect. Because Alexander is a contract and not a salaried employee, the division has saved $14,000 in benefits, added Kadlec.
And Finell said Alexander's 32 years of experience will prove to be invaluable during the time of transition of amalgamating with another board.
"They could have gone cheap (in replacing Alexander with someone with less experience) but they would have got cheap. I think they're getting good value for their dollar," said Finell.
Another point of contention for those at the meeting was how minutes from the June board meeting were altered. Alexander has admitted he deleted the motions that related to his retirement and "gratuity" when he provided a copy to a taxpayer this fall.
"At this point, it's in the realm of misunderstanding," said Finell when asked if it was legal or illegal to edit public meeting minutes.
While one of the items on Wednesday night's agenda was the contracts of the secretary-treasurer as well as the director of education, neither was discussed.
"We will not be distributing copies of the contract here nor will we be discussing contents of the contracts," said Finell.
He said if people really wanted to see the contracts, they would have to come to the division office and request to view them. When asked if he would publish the contracts in the local newspaper, Finell said, "In a word, no."
He added that he wasn't anticipating any other "retirement gratuities" for other school administrators.
Several motions passed by the taxpayers will be discussed at the school board's next regular meeting on Feb. 16. One of the motions calls for the board members who approved of Alexander's payment to pay for it themselves by reimbursing the school division.
Kadlec doesn't expect that motion to pass at the board.
"I would never vote in favour of that," said Kadlec in an interview after the meeting. As chair he only votes when there is a tie.
"I would never put up the money. If we had done something illegal, I'd say, 'Yes.' Or if we had done something that was wrong, I'd say, 'Yes,' but we didn't."
The man who spearheaded the petition-drive that forced the meeting was disappointed with how school officials continued to justify Alexander's payment.
"There were questions that weren't answered. They answered some of them. Some of (the answers) were a little hazy," said Robert McJannet after the meeting.
"At least they showed up, that's one thing. They showed their faces," he said adding he would have liked to have put them on the "hot seat" by challenging the answers they gave but the rules of the meeting didn't allow it.
A Davidson school administrator who collected a controversial $120,000 "retirement gratuity" admits he deleted motions approving the payment in a copy of meeting minutes he gave to a taxpayer.
"This should raise everybody's concerns," said Robert McJannet, who farms near Davidson, south of Saskatoon.
McJannet has two versions of minutes from a June 16 meeting when the Davidson school board passed motions accepting the retirement of secretary-treasurer Jeff Alexander, paying him a $120,000 "retirement gratuity," as the board called it, and re-hiring him as a contract employee doing the same job he had been performing as a permanent employee.
Trustees also passed a motion approving a formula for severance packages for central office staff who don't accept jobs when the school division amalgamates with another board.
All four motions were deleted from the first copy of the June minutes given to McJannet in October.
"They just don't want the public to know as far as I'm concerned. I can't understand both scenarios -- why they gave (Alexander) the money and why they altered the minutes," said McJannet.
"If they're willing to hide this stuff, what else are they hiding and what else have they hid?"
McJannet requested that Alexander give him copies of the minutes from the board meetings held between March and September after he had been speaking with trustee Diane Taylor about needing new basketball equipment at the local high school. McJannet says Taylor told him that there was no money for the equipment and that if he wanted to know where the money went, he should look at the minutes.
McJannet went through the minutes and didn't initially find anything unusual. He discovered his copy was not complete when he went back to Taylor. He has since obtained an unedited version of the minutes from Alexander.
"The night I found out that my minutes were altered, I phoned the secretary-treasurer and asked him why he was doing this. If he's willing to take $120,000, he should be able to walk down the street," said McJannet.
Alexander says there was a misunderstanding and he thought McJannet wanted minutes with motions relating to basketball equipment. While he admits he deleted the motions dealing with his retirement payment and his new contract, as well as the severance packages for office staff members, he doesn't apologize for doing it.
"Things were taken out about kids and personnel for all of those minutes (McJannet requested), not just (minutes from) June," said Alexander.
But all the other motions passed in June dealing with personnel matters such as leave requests, transfers, hirings and the resignation of three teachers were left in the minutes.
Alexander denies he removed motions pertaining to his retirement to hide his $120,000 payment from taxpayers.
He refused to say if he believes he did the right thing by deleting some motions from the public minutes.
"What's done is done," he said.
But a University of Saskatchewan education professor says motions dealing with the comings and goings of employees must be made during public meetings and those motions must be recorded in public minutes.
"Minutes literally are a record, presumably approved, of what happened in a public meeting and for the very purpose not just of tracking actions internally but also providing public accountability for the decisions that have been made," said professor Keith Walker.
"You can revisit items but if it's been approved, it's not up to an administrator to go and change what has been approved by the board. You just don't do that. If it's minuted and approved, that's the way it is."
Earlier this month, the Davidson school board turned down a request by McJannet to hold a public meeting to discuss Alexander's retirement payment and the altered minutes. Undeterred, McJannet is collecting signatures of ratepayers to force a meeting in the new year.