Bonus payouts to Middletown’s schools superintendent came into question during a Board of Education candidates forum Wednesday, and those vying for three open seats came down on different sides of the issue.
A slate of 10 candidates, including three incumbents, are seeking election to the nine-member board. The candidates weighed in on educational issues in Middletown during the forum at Harmony School sponsored by the school’s PTO and League of Women Voters of Greater Red Bank.
“I’m totally, 100 percent against bonuses," said candidate Michael Craig, a retired police officer. He added that many school central administrators are well paid and should be achieving results “in the first place” and without added incentive.
The issue has been met with criticism by some. Superintendent William George was awarded a $21,560.50 bonus for his performance in meeting five pre-set goals in the 2012-2013 school year, as per his employment contract.
George earns a base salary of $187,500 to oversee the education of 10,000 students at 17 schools. He could have earned up to $27,750 in merit pay but did not fully satisfy all of the bonus goals. In 2012 George received a $13,079 bonus.
“He actually saves us money by getting that bonus,” said candidate Michael Ostrander, who works as a Wall Street consultant. He noted that the money was awarded in part because George raised revenues for the district. Nonetheless, the candidate still welcomed more scrutiny.
“I think there’s a little bit of oversight there that’s needed,” he said.
Incumbent Vincent Brand said that a bonus was put into George’s contract as a way to attract him to the school district while offering more money than the state cap on superintendent salary allows. George earned his merit pay while improving things in the district, he said.
“Merit pay was designed to do that,” Brand said, adding that there was oversight in the process including approval from the county schools superintendent.
Candidate Michael Donlon, a manager for the U.S. Postal Service and former board member who lost his seat last year, said that the bonus was to attract George to the position. Additionally, George’s contract and bonus goals weren’t kept secret from residents and are available in public school documents.
Bonuses can work if used properly, said candidate Bob Banta, a once-elected board member who resigned his term due to health issues. But, extra payouts should be reserved for work done “above and beyond a job description.”
“Impress me,” he said. “Do something more for me than you’re already paid to do.”
Candidate Richard Campbell, a U.S. Navy veteran and financial consultant, offered another idea, saying that bonus pay can be eliminated if compensation is improved.
George did what was outlined in his contract and was paid his bonus accordingly, making it fair, said candidate Anastasia Millicker, a college student.
Incumbents Chris Aveta, who serves as current board president, and John Bennett were unable to attend the forum, as was newcomer Rocco DelGuercio. It was announced that all had prior engagements.
Candidates touched on other school district issues during the forum, which lasted about 70 minutes, including class size inequities at township schools.
“This didn't just come up upon us. The board has been remiss in this endeavor," Ostrander said, adding that he has experience identifying trends in his line of work which could be helpful in finding solutions.
The issue is complex, Brand said, stemming back from budget cuts in 2010 which affected staffing. Aside from moving teachers, he said block scheduling is a possible solution and the board is working to address the situation.
“We need to address this problem, but we need to do it as a team, not a group of people fighting against each other," Brand said.
Millicker and Banta both said that a demographic study should be completed to assess the needs of the community and its schools.
Donlon said that he would work toward a quick solution to the issue, rather than spending years studying it.
"We need to be able to ask that question today and expect feedback in a community dialog very, very quickly," he said.
Polls open on Tuesday, Nov. 5.