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October 10, 2020 - 5:46pm

City school trustees reluctant to discuss superintendent's raise

posted by Howard B. Owens in schools, education, news, notify, City Schools, batavia.

A 3-percent pay raise for City School's Superintendent Anibal Soler Jr. was primarily a cost-of-living adjustment, a couple of members of the board of education told The Batavian in response to a set of emailed questions.

But not all board members responded to the request for comment.

Not responding were:

  • Shawna Murphy
  • Barbara Bowman
  • John Reigle

Trustee Tanni Bromley provided the most detailed response.

During the annual review process, the Board approved the raise of Mr. Soler after thorough discussion during the executive session. The Board felt it was justified for a few reasons which included cost of living increase, the longevity bonus would support and promote Mr. Soler's tenure in education. And finally, the Board did feel that Mr. Soler provided a well-structured plan for our district's reopening. 

The Board always takes the public's thoughts and feelings into account when making such decisions however it is also known that our decisions will not please every community member. Our objective always remains to provide our kids with the best educational experience possible, especially during these difficult and unprecedented times. 

The board approved the raise for Soler, lifting his annual pay from $160,000 to $164,800, unanimously near the end of the same meeting where Soler outlined a looming financial crisis for the school district. The governor's office is withholding at least 20 percent of state funding because of the pandemic and that could lead to a revenue shortfall of more than $5.4 million.

The seeming incongruity of the revenue discussion and the board approving a raise for Soler was questioned by members of the local community, so The Batavian asked each board member to provide their individual reasons for approving the raise.

Board President Alice Ann Benedict first responded:

As per School law, we discuss any employee issues in executive session. We had an in-depth discussion. We then put it on the agenda under consent items and voted on the raise. It is a cost of living increase. Three percent of $160,000 is $4,800.

In an attempt to get Benedict to expand on her answer, The Batavian, in a response email, noted that state law allows elected officials to discuss personnel matters in executive session (what some call "secret session") but doesn't require personnel matters be discussed behind closed doors, nor does state law prohibit elected officials from publically discussing their thoughts on matters taken up in executive session.

In a subsequent email, Benedict said the board held a thorough, in-depth discussion about the raise in closed session.

In a follow-up, we asked Benedict about the size of the raise -- 3 percent -- when the inflation rate in 2020 has been less than 1 percent and the consumer price index in 2019 was less than 2 percent.

"We choose a combination of cost of living, merit, and equity," Benedict said. "This was all decided during a very lengthy executive session meeting." 

Peter Cecere apologized for the delayed response because of a significant family matter. He again cited that the discussion was an executive session matter:

All decisions we arrive at are done with the utmost of thought and consideration from all angles and all sides. Many times not easy and often very laborious.

Rest assured we negotiated as a group, of one voice, and consent.

In response, The Batavian again noted that as a matter of law, he is not prohibited from discussing his decision to support a raise. We got no response.

John Marucci also apologized for a delayed response, citing long hours at work, and said:

What I can tell you is that any and all decisions made by the board of education are discussed thoroughly and we come together as a group on decisions that are made. Anything that is discussed in executive session is confidential.

In response, The Batavian again informed Marucci that we were seeking his individual thoughts on the raise and that state law does not prohibit him from answering questions for the public about matters discussed in executive session. He did not respond.

As for Anibal Soler Jr., he acknowledges that the optics of the raise being approved at a meeting where he spoke about the revenue issue -- the executive session where the raise was discussed was at a prior meeting -- don't look good, but he pointed out that:

  • His contract includes an annual raise;
  • The board was supposed to approve a raise for him in July but Soler asked that the matter be delayed because he was busy dealing with pandemic-related issues in the district;
  • Every bargaining unit in the district, the various unions, and other individual administrators have contracts that mandate annual raises. "Should I be the only one to go without a raise?" he said.

Yes, he said, the timing of the meeting, the optics, do not look good but the district, he said, is facing such a serious revenue shortfall that forgoing a $4,800 raise isn't going to fill in the hole.

He said last year he offered to skip a raise if all the other bargain units would forego their raises and the unions didn't take him up on the offer.

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