Prentiss contract updates divide board
Last updated 2/1/2023 at 5:22pm | View PDF
The Hinsdale High School District 86 Board split along familiar fault lines last week in approving a 31-day contract extension for Superintendent Tammy Prentiss along with added contract language intended to protect her from early termination.
The board voted 4-3 at its Jan. 26 meeting to extend Prentiss’ contract to July 31, 2024, at which time she plans to retire. The additional days enable her to retire with a full pension.
A clause was also added to the contract prohibiting Prentiss from being fired for allegations related to “the drafting of language contained in versions of the Valbrun Consulting Group’s letter/email of Jan. 12 and 13, 2022, notifying the Board of Ms. Valbrun’s withdrawal of her proposal for services.”
Board member Cynthia Hanson thanked Prentiss for giving the district early notice of her intent to retire.
“I personally appreciate the fact that we have all this time to prepare to perhaps engage an executive search firm to do the will of the community that’s been asking for it,” said Hanson, in the majority with board President Erik Held and board members Kathleen Hirsman and Terri Walker.
But board member Jeff Waters, opposing the measure with board members Peggy James and Debbie Levinthal, called the action “inappropriate” and “a breach of fiduciary responsibility” with a new board poised to be seated after the April 4 election.
“It’s pretty apparent that this decision should be reserved for a future board,” he said. “Eighteen months before a contract is set to expire, to me that’s a clear and transparent attempt to protect the superintendent and to tie any board’s hands, including this one.”
Equity consultant Valda Valbrun was considered for hire by the district until residents challenged her qualifications. Valbrun subsequently withdrew her name for consideration, and Prentiss read her withdrawal letter aloud at a board meeting, in which the community was called “a dangerous place.” A Freedom of Information Act request showed Prentiss added two lines to the withdrawal letter. Some in the community responded with anger, demanding Prentiss’ resignation.
According to the contract, and independent external investigation into the matter found “no cause to discharge the superintendent.” Speaking with The Hinsdalean on Monday, Held would not comment on the investigation but suggested allowing Prentiss to reach retirement enhances the district’s reputation as a good employer to go with its record of academic excellence.
“A way that you do that is you treat your faculty and administrators with respect and dignity,” Held said.
He rejected allegations of those critical of the extension that it would result in a “$10 million payout” by the district, noting that the state is responsible for funding pensions. He said the actual percentage of the portion the district pays into the State of Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System and the Teacher Health Insurance Security Fund on behalf of Prentiss was adjusted down from 100 percent to 50 percent, with Prentiss making up the difference. Her salary is $264,258 a year.
“Prentiss is covering more of (the required contribution) than she would have normally,” he said.
Several district residents used the public comment period to voice their opposition to the amendments, with some alluding to the possibility of legal action.
Board member Kathleen Hirsman said she was proud of her vote.
“I am not going to be intimidated by people from the audience or other board members suggesting that I may have some personal liability for making a decision, which I believe is in the best interests of this school district,” Hirsman said.
Board member Debbie Levinthal disagreed.
“At this time, I feel that approving this contract violates our fiduciary responsibilities to the district,” she said.
Held said the amendments came out of “a few conversations that Tammy and I had,” and that the rest of the board had been apprised well in advance.
“This was not something that simply came up two weeks ago and is being foisted on the district,” he remarked.
The Hinsdalean contacted Hinsdale attorney Dan Walker, who specializes in employment law. He said while the Valbrun exclusionary clause is unusual, it’s not unheard of.
“Often parties or one party to a contract want to clarify an issue or make sure that some prior act has been resolved and that the resolution is documented,” Walker said.
Held said having Prentiss stay through July will allow her successor to make a smooth transition.
“I do believe that this contract is to the overall benefit both organizationally and financially to the district, and that includes all pieces of it,” he said.