For weeks, the reasons behind the dismissal of Hazelwood schools Superintendent Steve Price have been somewhat of a mystery. And an expensive one at that.
The Hazelwood School Board disclosed Wednesday that the district will pay Price’s salary of $237,326 until he finds another job or June 2014, when his contract ends. At the same time, the board quickly promoted a new superintendent whose salary will be $212,000 this year.
Yet board members have refused to disclose specific reasons for the termination, declaring it a confidential personnel matter.
But emails obtained by the Post-Dispatch through the state’s open records law offer clues about the departure.
Days before Price’s dismissal, he faced questions from the School Board about a surprising surplus of money in the budget, his leadership in the wake of stagnant test scores and simmering tensions with staff.
According to the emails, School Board member Desiree Whitlock had more than a dozen issues she emailed Price about one week before his removal. She wrote that she had received several calls, including one about rumors that Price had told staff the board was trying to get rid of him.
“Teachers and staff asked why are you threatening to fire them? They indicated you have created a hostile work environment with your threats,” Whitlock wrote in the email dated Aug. 24. “Staff that called me were tearful and cried about this added stress of getting fired.” They said, “Hazelwood is going to H--l under the current superintendent’s term.”
The newspaper requested emails between board members and Price for the month of August.
The emails reveal complaints and concerns brought up by Whitlock about the surplus money.
The week after Price’s removal, district leaders told staff a $9 million budget surplus would allow for an average 5 percent raise for teachers and other employees. Price and board President Cheryl Latham discussed the surplus on Aug. 28.
“I’d like for you and (Dwight Lindhorst) to provide the Board with an update on what and how this happened,” Latham wrote to Price on Aug. 28. “You should also be prepared to share written corrective action plan/steps that will address this issue.”
Latham and Price called an emergency board meeting for Aug. 30 to discuss the money. The next day, Hazelwood announced Price’s removal.
“Are you telling me there was more than adequate funds available to have given staff raises?” Whitlock wrote in an email earlier that week when she questioned Price about the money. “The staff and teachers were correct!!!!!!!!!!!!! I want an EXPLANATION!!!!!!!! This Sucks!”
The surplus stemmed from expenditures coming in 4 percent under budget for the 2011-12 school year, and revenue higher. Officiials had planned for 32 percent of operating expenditures in the district’s fund balance, a sort of savings account, but the actual balance at the end of the year was 38 percent.
About $5.5 million will be spent on salary increases for the 2013-14 school year, giving staff two steps on the salary schedule. In July, the district and the Hazelwood Education Association had agreed on a 1 percent increase, the same as the previous year. Individual raises will depend on a teacher’s experience and education.
The board dismissed Price as he began his third year with the district. He was on paid administrative leave while attorneys negotiated a contract settlement.
Grayling Tobias, previously assistant superintendent of learning, took the interim position and then was officially chosen as superintendent on Tuesday.
The settlement means the district will effectively be paying for two superintendents until Price finds another job, or June 2014, the end of his contract signed by the board in May 2011.
Board members have referred questions to Latham. She said she cannot comment on what led to the board’s decision.
Latham said that the board wants a narrow focus on student achievement and that in the 10 weeks since Tobias has taken the lead, the district has accomplished a “significant amount.”
“We believe that particular leadership change understands our community’s needs,” Latham said.
In the Aug. 24 email to Price from Whitlock, one of the accusations was that the superintendent did not care “about anybody but himself and is trying to get a pension from the district on the backs of our kids and teachers.” Price responded to her email the following Monday and said he had also heard that rumor.
“It is simply not true,” said Price, adding that he had moved his family here and his children were attending school. “I don’t want to pick up and move, my family and I want this to be our home for a long time.”
Whitlock did not return phone messages about the email. Latham said Whitlock has an extensive community network and has high expectations for the district.
“She is a passionate advocate,” Latham said. “I don’t know that I can say she was upset. I think that everyone on this board is very, very protective of our community.”
Price had previously served as the superintendent for seven years in Middletown City Schools, a district of about 7,000 students in Ohio. He left Middletown after a separation agreement in which he resigned two years before his contract expired.
He was criticized there for student discipline problems and the cost and effectiveness of a program on race and equity. In light of Price’s departure, Hazelwood also is now scaling back its own program integrating it into other staff training.
Price was hired in Hazelwood for the 2010-11 school year on a three-year contract at an annual salary of $235,000. He replaced Chris Nicastro, who left to become Missouri’s education chief.
After the board’s decision, Price said he was “surprised and saddened” by the board’s actions.
“My concern has always been, and continues to be, for the welfare and best possible education for the students of the Hazelwood School District,” he said in a statement issued through his attorney shortly after the decision. “I continue to have the highest regard for the students, parents, teachers, staff and administrative faculty of the district.”
He declined to comment this week.
Districtwide, Hazelwood’s test scores in communication arts and math have been relatively flat over the last two years, sitting below state averages. In math, for example, about 39 percent of Hazelwood students passed in 2012, compared with 55 percent statewide.
Some parents say they feel refreshed with Tobias at the helm. But a few want a better understanding of what happened.
“I don’t feel like a superintendent’s or principal’s removal should be hush-hush,” said Holly Vaughn, a parent at Hazelwood West. “But at the same time, we voted (the board) in to do the hiring for us.”
At a meeting in October for residents to meet Tobias, Vaughn and a small group listened to his focus on teaching and learning. “I want to let you know we are not going to let you down,” Tobias told them.
“We are moving forward,” Tobias said in an interview. “I can’t afford to exert any energy on anything else.”