The Sewanhaka Central High School district has proposed a budget of nearly $245 million for the 2023-24 academic year, funding a number of projects beginning this fall, including the expansion of a real estate education program that could prepare students to take the state real estate licensing exam, and the restoration of Sewanhaka High School’s iconic clock tower.
But one thing you won’t find highlighted in that budget — at least not in the part presented to the public — is a payout of more than $400,000 to a beloved principal who disappeared on a sudden sabbatical last fall, only to later reveal that his absence will be permanent.
It’s the kind of omission that remains ever so common among a large number of elected bodies where transparency is paramount. And it’s the kind of unnecessary omission that can fuel distrust between leaders and constituents — just when trust is needed most, when school district residents go to the polls in a couple of weeks to give a school budget their blessing, or to cast a vote against it.
It’s hard to blame now-former Elmont Memorial High School Principal Kevin Dougherty for collecting as much as he can for an employment separation it appears he didn’t volunteer for. But even in the shadow of a budget worth nearly a quarter-billion dollars, it could certainly be a real head-scratcher how the district justifies such a significant golden parachute, using taxpayer money — and why it felt that such a deal wasn’t fit for public consumption.
It wasn’t discussed at a school board meeting or made part of a budget presentation. We know about it only because a Newsday reporter filed a public-records request and then patiently waited for the school district to hand the documents over.
Now, the school board will say this was not trumpeted across the district because the dispute between Dougherty and the trustees could be classified as a personnel issue — and that’s fair. We know there was a dispute, because one was hinted at in the paperwork obtained through the records request. And the nature of that dispute could very well fall under “personnel.”
But the payout — one involving money every property owner pays into the Sewanhaka district’s coffers — is something that deserved a bit more scrutiny. Or, at the very least, a “for your information.”
Dougherty’s payout appears to consist of both his $200,000 salary and an equal amount in unpaid bonuses. It’s not clear what the bonuses represented, but accrued time off and other elements the board is contractually obligated to pay out were most likely a part of it.
In fact, while it’s a lot of money, an open discussion could have easily benefited the school board, explaining the financial particulars of the payout, why it was necessary, and the fact that $400,000 represents barely two-tenths of 1 percent of the district’s total budget.
The school board also could have boasted how well it manages money, with an example that while Superintendent James Grossane earns the district’s highest salary, at just over $275,000 a year, there are 115 other school administrators in the state who make more than he does.
Yet that discussion never happened. It didn’t even come up. And if someone hadn’t dug deeper to find out what was going on, we wouldn’t be talking about it now.
Teachers are vital to the makeup of our society. It’s why we spend our entire childhood — and the early part of our adulthood — in front of them, learning everything we can about the world around us. And administrators like Dougherty are important, too, because they build and maintain the framework where education happens.
But if the school board is going to negotiate an exit that ultimately pays someone a full year’s salary, along with additional benefits that essentially doubles that salary, it deserves a discussion. A public discussion. It won’t be fun — not by a long shot. But it is necessary.
So the discussion is happening now. And at the moment, parents seem more upset about losing someone who they believe is a great principal than about how much he’s taking as he walks out the door. And that’s perfectly fine — sometimes it’s not about the money.
In the end, however, these are still taxpayer dollars. And taxpayers have a right to know how every dollar is being spent. While no one is asking the school board to publicize how each dollar is spent, when there’s a payout that’s outside the norm, it’s worth a discussion.
And we hope all government bodies — not just the Sewanhaka Central High School District — will remember that.