This post has been updated.

Top Poway school administrators in charge of negotiating teacher pay have a financial stake in the outcome of those talks.

Since taking the district’s top post in July 2010, Superintendent John Collins’ contract has contained a provision that grants him the same pay raises as other managers in the district. Under Poway Unified’s model, managers get the same pay increases as the district’s union groups, with the teachers setting the bar for the rest, district records show. So any raises teachers get, Collins gets too, and so does Collins’ wife Lisa, a teacher at the district’s Design 39 Campus.

The same goes for all three of the district’s assistant superintendents, who received six-figure contracts in November with the same provision, including the head of personnel and lead district negotiator, Tracy Hogarth, and the head of business, Malliga Tholandi.

That means the same district officials tasked with seeking the best possible deal for local taxpayers and students have a personal financial incentive to give more money to teachers. Basic legal and ethical principles should prevent Poway’s administrators from negotiating agreements that affect their own pockets, experts say.

These types of contract provisions are called “me too” clauses, and they’re not unheard of in the public education sector – but there’s one big caveat that makes Poway problematic: Its administrators have a direct role in creating a contract that traditionally boosts their own pay. Such self-dealing is typically banned, may void the contract and in some cases result in civil and criminal penalties.

Collins said no conflict exists because his wife gets no special treatment, and the school board is the ultimate authority on all contracts.

“The Board of Education acts as the employer and all negotiation items are ultimately brought to the board for action,” Collins wrote in an email. “The superintendent’s role is the chief executive officer of the district, and it is the board that is ultimately responsible for decisions about a superintendent’s compensation.”

Candy Smiley, president of the Poway Federation of Teachers, also said it’s a non-issue.

“Everyone relies on the teachers to negotiate. Everyone gets what teachers get,” she said.

Hogarth and Tholandi did not respond to requests for comment.

Attorney Bob Fellmeth, executive director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego, said school board approval does not absolve the issue.

“He has a fiduciary duty to the taxpayers as their representative,” Fellmeth said. “As such, it is appropriate to entirely separate his compensation from the result of these negotiations.”

“Public officials negotiating salaries and benefits on behalf of taxpayers best not be the recipient of their own concessions. Neither they nor their families should be receiving higher pay at public cost based on their surrender to teacher or other public unions,” he said. “Would you choose a person who is a monetary beneficiary of a lucrative deal to be your advocate in that process? I wouldn’t.”

Michael Colantuono, a veteran municipal attorney, also said Poway’s arrangement is troublesome.

“This is a problem and (Collins) has a choice: maintain his contract and abstain from negotiations, or participate in negotiations and amend his contract,” Colantuono said. “It is very common to award management the same economics negotiated with bargaining units. However, it is illegal if the managers have a legal entitlement to that treatment for them to negotiate the rank-and-file deals … School districts often make mistakes in this area because they get too little legal advice.”

Poway’s longtime labor attorney Jerry Conradi declined to comment on the issue, citing attorney-client privilege. The district’s contracted general counsel who oversaw the administrator contracts, Daniel Shinoff, did not respond to a request for comment.

Unlike other district bargaining groups, Poway teachers negotiate practically year-round thanks to a prized, attorney-free process the district uses called Interest Based Problem Solving.

As part of that process, each of the three assistant superintendents leads monthly teacher negotiation sessions specific to their department. Five larger meetings are then held where the superintendent, his cabinet and top teacher’s union leadership jointly decide on a proposal to bring to the school board for approval.

Poway teacher contract talks stalled earlier this year when the Poway School Employees Association, a group of non-teacher employees of the district, filed a charge with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board over the district’s failure to follow state laws requiring public notice of teacher negotiations.

Teacher negotiations were recently restarted with proper public notice, and a public hearing was held April 14 regarding the 2014-15 teacher contract talks.

Some residents expressed their objections to administrators’ stake in the negotiations at the hearing.

“The other side of the negotiating table is the administration saying, ‘Me too. Me too. Me too,’” said resident Raymond Usell. “So as far as I’m concerned, the process is filled with self-serving (interests). It’s taking care of the adults.”

One resident, Tom Moore, said the three new board members elected in November were chosen to “stop this cronyism” and “fire superintendent Collins.”

“The priority for parents and voters who elected you is to put more teachers into our classrooms, reduction of class sizes and ensuring programs are available for well-rounded education,” resident Steve Sarviel told the board at the hearing. “It is not the priority of the voters to allow Mr. Collins to maintain the status quo process of creating an illusion of negotiating with a union leader for personal financial gain.”

At Monday’s school board meeting, newly elected school board member T.J. Zane emphasized that manager raises are approved through separate board actions, “So it’s not an automatic conflict of interest.” His comments were met with loud applause by the board room packed full of teachers gathered to rally support for their negotiations.

Former school board member Marc Davis supported the district practice.

“Me-too language is critical because it’s a two-way street. It’s not just about raises,” he said at Monday’s meeting. “Yes. People negotiating, they’re going to get a raise and when they take a reduction, they’re going to take a reduction” like they did during tough economic times.

Fellow school board member Charles Sellers, however, called on his colleagues to end the practice of allowing administrators with a financial stake in the deal to lead negotiations. Sellers said in an interview he’s troubled by the lack of arm’s length dealing.

“The problem isn’t IBPS. The problem is the same people that are negotiating are getting the same raises,” he said. “You want people negotiating that don’t have a financial incentive.”

Seller’s wife works as a library media technician in the district and is part of the classified worker union Poway School Employees Association, but he objects to any comparisons.

“The difference is I don’t participate in those negotiations. I have no hand in negotiating with PSEA,” Sellers said. “John participates in feathering his own nest.”

Update: The superintendent and teacher’s union president signed a 2014-15 contract proposal Tuesday that would grant teachers a retroactive 2.5 percent pay increase this school year, on top of the usual longevity pay increases and the 1 percent salary increase already gained with the return of two work days. The agreement also calls for the district to spend $1 million on class size reduction in TK-3 next school year, and commit to use the fair-share teacher compensation formula that’s part of the district’s long-held Interest Based Problem Solving method. Teachers will be asked to approve the agreement May  12 and 13, followed by the school board May 18.

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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