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Official's Big Raise Means Showdown in Victorville

School superintendent's pay package will roughly double unless the board reverses itself this week -- under threat of a recall drive.

June 28, 2005|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

A new contract that will boost the salary of Victorville's elementary school superintendent to $250,000 a year -- the same as school chiefs in Los Angeles and New York City -- has infuriated parents and teachers in the High Desert district, with some clamoring for a recall of trustees who approved the deal.

The package, which will pay Supt. Ralph Baker a little more than $1.2 million over four years and provide health and dental insurance to him and his wife for life, comes when tight budgets have forced the cancellation of summer school programs in the district, along with other cuts.

"We ... can't see straight up here," said Brian Johnson, a fifth-grade teacher at Park View Elementary, which is forgoing summer school for lack of funding. "The superintendent used to have the best intentions for the children. Now, it seems like he's in it for his pocketbook."

Outrage over the contract led to a rush-hour rally Friday and, before that, a contentious board meeting June 15, when hundreds jeered trustees and issued an ultimatum: Renegotiate the contract or face recall.

The Victor Elementary School District board plans to discuss the contract during a closed-door meeting Wednesday.

"We are paying attention to what the voters are saying," said board President Karen Morgan, one of four trustees who voted for the contract. "At this point, a recall is looking like a reality. It's a shame. We've been making thousands of decisions ... and they want to kick us to the curb [over one vote]. But that's what a recall is for."

Baker currently earns $140,000 a year -- average for superintendents of elementary school districts the size of Victorville's, according to the California Department of Education.

Starting Friday, Baker's salary will jump 78.6% to $250,000 per year. He is to receive a one-time bonus of $200,000 on Aug. 1 as well as $10,000 raises each of the next three years. Baker didn't return calls seeking comment.

Baker's salary to oversee the education of 11,000 students will be the same as that paid to Los Angeles Unified Supt. Roy Romer, who is in charge of nearly 750,000 students, and New York City schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, who leads more than 1.1 million students.

"If you want to make comparisons, right there you can see that it's way out of line," said Trustee Monte Worle, the lone board member who voted against Baker's contract in April.

Baker, 55, who has been superintendent in Victorville for more than two decades, is widely credited by teachers and parents for improving test scores and earning national recognition for district schools.

Morgan said she wanted to reward Baker for his work and keep him from taking a private-sector job, which he has reportedly said he may do, at a time when the district is facing unprecedented growth.

Victorville, about 80 miles northeast of Los Angeles, is home to about 86,000 people, many of them recent transplants drawn by affordable housing. It is among the fastest-growing cities in the state, with population up 10.7% in 2004.

Morgan said she hoped the board could reach a compromise with Baker during Wednesday's meeting that would reduce his compensation.

Still, she said, the board's intentions behind the raise were valid.

"I only regret the decision because it was so unacceptable to the public," Morgan said. "My opinion is that he is the best superintendent in the state. You pay superior money for superior performance."

Worle, a former teacher and principal, countered that no one is irreplaceable. "I've seen them come and go, and die on the job," he said. "The school continues to go on."

Some parents, who have donated supplies to classrooms and raised money for schools, are taking the $1.2-million contract as a personal affront.

"It is truly a slap in the face to every parent who has worked diligently throughout the year trying to provide things for the classroom," said Deanne Ellison, president of the Lomitas Elementary School Parent Teachers Assn. and a mother of two.

Parents put on a fashion show and silent auction this year that raised $7,000 for workbooks, field trips and classroom necessities, she said. Still, summer enrichment classes at Lomitas weren't offered this year for lack of money. At Village Elementary, teachers have likewise forgone professional development conferences and seminars.

"We have been under the impression for quite a long time that we had to tighten our belts, that times were hard," said Carol Hunter-Inman, vice president of the teachers union and a fifth-grade teacher at Mojave Vista. Baker's big raise "came as a shock."

Ellison said that, unless the board changed its mind, recall was the only option.

"We didn't pick this fight. They did," she said. "We have given Dr. Baker and the board a way out with dignity -- both the board and Dr. Baker have an opportunity to renegotiate this contract, and it's over."

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