The Montgomery County Board of Education approved a contract last night that would make new schools chief Jerry Weast one of the highest-paid public officials in the nation, prompting civic activists and county officials to warn that they will be watching to make sure his performance is as good as his paycheck.
"We'll know a year from now whether it's too much," County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) said of a contract that would pay Weast almost $300,000 a year with benefits. "It's like a ballplayer getting a new salary. The public is going to be watching even closer."
Duncan, who has no authority to block the agreement, predicted that its size would lead public-sector employees "across this county and the state" to demand higher salaries.
"You are going to see a lot of discussion about what are appropriate levels of pay," Duncan said.
Weast, who is expected to begin his new job Aug. 1, will sign the new contract after he is released from his current contract with the Guilford County School District in Greensboro, N.C., school officials said.
The deal, which covers everything from moving expenses to pension plans, would pay Weast a base salary of $237,000, or about 50 percent more than departing Superintendent Paul L. Vance was paid. That makes him the third highest-paid school superintendent in the country and better paid than the governor, the state superintendent of education and the president of the United States.
"It is a lot of money," said school board member Nancy J. King (Upcounty), who voted for the contract. "But it's the going rate for the best, and he's the best. I choked over it, too, like any taxpayer."
But several Montgomery officials and community activists accused the board of bargaining from a position of desperation. Weast became the board choice after its favored candidate withdrew amid questions over her personal finances. That made it clear to Weast, some said, that he had the upper hand in contract talks.
Duncan said the school board should have worked out Weast's contract before making his selection public, just as his administration did with its new police chief, who will be making $125,000 a year.
"That should not have happened from this school board," said Duncan, whose aides said the board's leverage declined once it made its preference known before having a contract in hand. Roscoe Nix, a former school board member, said that "the school board didn't negotiate. They surrendered."
"The public is not going to blame him," Nix said, referring to Weast. "They are going to blame the board, and members will be hearing about this during next year's election season."
School board members and others say the county must pay such salaries to secure experienced candidates such as Weast, known as a bullish administrator who has supervised a rise in student performance during his tenure in Guilford County, which has a smaller school system than Montgomery. Many are looking for Weast to shake up a once-vaunted school system that has been slipping recently in state rankings.
Board members said the compensation package was simply a way of ensuring that Weast did not lose money because of the move. School officials estimated that it is 25 percent more expensive to live in Montgomery than in Greensboro.
"It is a formula-based salary based on what he is currently making and adjusting for the cost of living here," said board member Stephen N. Abrams (At Large). "It's plain and simple."
Weast's contract is based on the agreements he negotiated for each of his last three superintendent jobs. He was represented by Richard Schwartz, a Raleigh lawyer who has worked for Weast in Guilford County. Schwartz helped run a controversial evaluation program that identified more than 100 low-performing teachers and resulted in more than half being fired or resigning. In one year alone, the Guilford school system paid Schwartz's firm close to $500,000.
"It's a struggle to negotiate on the front end," said Sandra Frye, a spokeswoman for the Guilford County school system. "But once it's done, it's done. He's never asked for a raise, he's never asked for a bonus."