Our Voice: Richland School Board makes gutsy decision to fire superintendent

January 29, 2013 

We're not lawyers.

But we think the Richland School Board made a gutsy move when it fired Superintendent Jim Busey. If he violated the terms of his contract as the board claims, the decision may even be admirable, but it's gutsy nonetheless.

We invite other public agencies to consider following Richland's lead when they find themselves in similar situations.

It's not unusual for a board to terminate a top manager's contract. Agencies do that. Sometimes with cause; sometimes without. But almost always with a "golden parachute" attached.

In most cases, it comes down to a simple business decision. Even if the employee is let go for cause, the cost of a potential lawsuit is enough to encourage most boards to offer a settlement. People sue for wrongful termination, and the legal costs can be extensive even if the employer ultimately wins the case.

Most groups take the safer, cheaper route by offering the employee money to quietly go away. When it's a public agency using taxpayers' money to pay off an underperforming employee, it adds insult to injury.

Busey admits to exercising poor judgment when he started an affair with a school district employee, but also has said he never violated the terms of his contract. The school board believes he violated a morals clause. We're not ready to weigh in.

But we still commend the school board for taking a stance that's consistent with its decision to fire Busey. The taxpayers' money shouldn't be used to reward people accused of violating the public's trust simply to avoid a legal battle.

We have, as a whole, lost sight of integrity, and settlements of convenience won't help us find it. Rather than living by the motto of "do the right thing," too many times we subscribe to "do whatever is easiest." It's an epidemic.

This is a small example of a big problem.

Parachute offerings usually involve money and benefits, and sometimes a secrecy clause. This can prevent the public from holding public servants accountable.

In specific terms for the Richland case, the school board voted unanimously that Busey had violated the terms of his contract by having an affair with a school employee and using school property to do so.

We didn't do the investigation. We don't have a position on the specific allegations. But we are impressed that board members are willing to stand their ground and fire him outright.

The school board members are stewards of the public's money. But, as is true with most decision, there are always non-financial factors to consider. How much emphasis does the community place on the "morality" of their school superintendent? Is it worth the risk of lawsuit -- especially when you feel like you are in the right?

The Richland School Board made a tough call -- one that we don't see often enough.

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