School district gave secret $94K payout to administrator

From the Twin Falls Times-News

by Drew Nash

TWIN FALLS — The Twin Falls School District hid its decision to give one of its top administrators a $94,108.26 payout this summer as part of a highly unusual separation agreement.

The district wrote a check June 27 to director of support services Clara Allred, payroll documents show. She announced her retirement a week later, and it was accepted by the school board during a meeting on the Fourth of July.

The reason for the massive payout and the cause of Allred’s departure remains unclear, even after the Times-News sued the district to obtain a copy of the separation agreement. It’s also still unclear why the district agreed to a clause that bars it from talking about the deal — an arrangement so unusual, district officials said they can’t remember ever signing something similar.

“I’m sorry that it is of the confidential nature it is and we can’t comment,” Superintendent Wiley Dobbs said in one of two meetings Monday with the newspaper. After consulting with district attorneys, Dobbs later added that deals like this sometimes come about after doing a “cost-benefit analysis.”

An employment attorney not connected to the deal said districts will sometimes pay an employee to go away rather than battle the person in court. But it’s not clear if that’s what happened in Allred’s case. Her attorney, Shelly Cozakos, wouldn’t answer questions for this story, instead issuing a statement that read:

“Clara Allred served the special needs children in the Twin Falls School District for 15 years, both as a teacher and the Director of the Special Needs program. She even continued serving the kids while undergoing treatment for breast cancer, with the full support of the District. Clara made the difficult decision to retire from the District and has no ill will for the District of any of its employees, and wishes them well. She desires to move on and help special needs children in a different capacity.”

The agreement

Allred oversaw many of the district’s education programs, including special education, gifted and talented education, paraprofessionals, school counseling, and services for students such as mental health services, psychology, audiology, speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy. She made $101,464 under her contract for the 2015-16 schoolyear.

The day after its July 4 meeting, the district announced Allred submitted a letter of retirement effective June 30, the day before the start of a new fiscal year. School boards rarely meet on federal holidays. And typically, trustees approve employee retirements in batches, not one at a time as it did for Allred.

The school district issued a brief statement July 5 about Allred’s departure: “The board wishes to thank Allred for her dedicated years of service to the District.”

Dobbs told the Times-News last week the board met on the holiday not to secretly approve the agreement but because he was leaving on vacation and the timing was also best for school trustees. But “if I could do it over, I would,” he said about the meeting date.

Citing the confidentiality clause in the agreement, the superintendent declined to answer specific questions about the deal. But Allred’s departure, he said, isn’t connected to any malfeasance or underlying problems in the district. And he noted: “She did retire.”

As part of the payout, Allred received $81,500 from the school district, plus $12,228.26 — the cash value of 242 accumulated hours of vacation leave. She will also receive post-employment group health insurance coverage.

The district also agreed not to take any civil action directly against Allred and will “forgo any further process relating to concerns that Allred has not fully or properly performed her duties with the District.”

If the district faces any “audit activities” by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, Idaho Department of Education or other government agency related to the district or Allred’s handling of special population students, she agreed to make herself available to inquiries. Officials from those agencies said they can’t confirm or deny whether an investigation has been opened.

Dobbs told the Times-News there haven’t been recent or upcoming audits related to special population students. And he said there aren’t any allegations regarding Allred’s conduct toward students.

The separation agreement states the school district would release an announcement about Allred’s retirement and open the search for a new director. The language in the announcement would reflect she “chose to retire for personal reasons and through the use of the Joint Statement,” according to the agreement, and no further comments would be issued to reporters.

Allred is allowed to seek letters of recommendation from coworkers. She’s prohibited from disparaging the district or employees, but “will respond to any subpoena or investigation by any agency in a truthful manner.”

The agreement states the district and school board won’t “state or in any manner imply that there was any form of a ‘pay-off’ in order to obtain Allred’s retirement.”

The lawsuit

After Allred’s departure, the Times-News immediately sought to obtain a copy of the separation agreement under Idaho’s open records laws. The district turned over a heavily redacted copy of the document, and the newspaper sued to obtain a complete copy. In court, district lawyers said the district was reluctant to turn over an unredacted copy of the agreement because it feared it would be sued by Allred for disclosing the arrangement.

In Twin Falls County Fifth District Court, Judge Randy Stoker ruled Sept. 14 the district had to turn over an unredacted agreement, with the exception of one paragraph and one attachment he said were related to Allred’s job performance. The portions still available to the newspaper did not specify why Allred was “retiring” or why the district was paying such a hefty sum to a retiring employee.

Even after the suit, district spokeswoman Eva Craner said the district is bound by legal constraints in what it can say about the case. In the separation agreement with Allred, the district agreed not to speak about the arrangement, and it is still under a legal obligation not to discuss the case.

The fallout

Since Allred left the job, the school district has made changes in the support services department. In addition to hiring new director Mike Gemar, it bid out services for special population students.

Services were previously contracted with a company called SMB Center, a company Allred contracted early in her tenure to provide special services to disabled and other special students in the district.

“Through that process, other companies were selected for this year,” Dobbs said.

Just before cutting ties with the company, in July school trustees approved an approximately $30,000 contract extension with SMB Center from Aug. 1-11.

It set the company’s pay at $32 per hour for individual students and $8 per hour for group services. A representative from the company signed the agreement June 28, the day after the school district wrote the payout check to Allred.

During a September meeting, trustees approved contracts with a handful of private service providers for this school year. SMB Center wasn’t included.

Dobbs said the school district has a positive relationship with the company. “Again,” he said, “we’ve had audits and those have come up clean.”

The district paid nearly $2.1 million to SMB Center in 2015, tax documents show. SMB Center doesn’t have a website or listed business phone number.

On Saturday, the district sought to preempt concern about this report by issuing a statement to other media and district staff about the Allred case.

“We want to make you aware of an article the Times-News plans to publish in their Sunday edition this weekend,” the statement read. “This article focuses on a personnel matter within the Twin Falls School District. As you may know, personnel matters are confidential in nature so that staff members have a reasonable right to privacy within their work environment. As always, we strive for transparency with our stakeholders and community. However, the TFSD is limited by legal constraints regarding personnel decisions.”

The district continued: “Districts often work with personnel and legal counsel to enter into various types of agreements after undergoing a cost-benefit analysis that takes into account all factors and possible outcomes of a specific circumstance including the consideration of student needs and interests.”

In the statement, the district confirmed that it had bid out services previously controlled by Allred and apologized for the “vagueness surrounding this matter.”

From the Twin Falls Times-News

Not an IDOG member yet?