The continuing controversy over what Floyd County School Superintendent Terry Arbogast actually earns showcases the secretive — and questionable — way the county school board operates and the backroom, good old boy deals that has nearly doubled the school chief’s salary since 1993.
While Arbogast’s $118,000 annual salary is slightly higher than the national average for school superintendent in similar districts, another $50,000 in benefits — including an $18,000 a year car allowance and retirement annuity payments — is way out of line and brings his actual yearly compensation to $168,000 a year.
The secretive way the school board approved raises for the superintendent — through phone calls, emails and closed-door sessions without ever reflecting his true salary in the budgets submitted for approval by the county board of supervisors — raises serious questions.
Board chairman Doug Phillips last week admitted to me that whenever Arbgogast received a job offer from another school district or threatened to leave his job, the board got together by phone and agreed — informally — to kick his salary up another $10,000 or $20,000 without any changes to his contract.
The money came from other line items in the school budget — usually funds left over from teacher vacancies.
Meanwhile, teachers in the school system saw their salaries frozen and the public record — the school system’s published budget — continued to list the superintendent’s salary as $98,000 a year.
This budgetary slight-of-hand prompted the supervisors last week to take more control over the school system’s budget — voting 3-2 to assume “category control,” including oversight of the administrative budget.
The action is a victory for Courthouse Supervisor Case Clinger who began questioning the school system’s budgeting process and the actual cost of paying the superintendent last year.
“Something’s not right here,” he said.
He was right. The school board acted in a questionable way, approving salary increases without any public record of its actions and allowing the superintendent to cherry pick other school system accounts to pay for the raises.
Arbogast now admits the practice must be “cleaned up.” Over breakfast a couple of weeks ago, he told me he should have been more open about how much he was paid and how the process worked. At the time the school system increased his base pay from $98,000 to $118,000 a year, Arbogast elected to keep the salary line item at the lower amount, saying he did not want to take heat from teachers who did not get a raise.
Phillips said the school board depended on the superintendent to tell them whether or not the way they approved and funded the raises were legal. The school board chairman is a long-time politico who served on the county board of supervisors before moving over to the school board and should know better.
I had the details on this situation two weeks ago but foolishly sat on it and the Roanoke Times scooped me on it on Sunday. My bad
The situation also exemplifies how government — in general — is run in Floyd County. Prying salaries out of government bodies — including the board of supervisors — is a difficult process even though the salaries of public officials is supposed to be public record.
The school system invited trouble when it required members of the board of supervisors — the entity that oversees the school budget — to file formal “freedom of information” requests under Virginia law to obtain salary information on the superintendent.
That kind of behavior has no place in a society where government is supposed to be open.
The superintendent is retiring by the end of this year and his era may be remembered more for the secretive controversial handling of his salary than anything he accomplished in a school system that has a good reputation in educational circles.
As for the publicly-elected school board, judgment day will come at the polling booth. That’s when those running for re-election will have to answer for their actions.