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By VINCE LUECKE
TELL CITY – Over the objections of two board members, Tell City-Troy Township School Corp. trustees voted Tuesday to pay Assistant to the Superintendent Bruce Chinn $37,800 in vacation time he accrued years ago and wants paid for when or before he retires next year.
The News first reported the issue in a front-page story June 2 in which Chinn announced he would step down at the end of the 2014-15 school year. Chinn earns $72,000 annually under a contract that requires him to work 200 days. He retired in 2010 as a certified staff member working 260 days and was rehired at a reduced salary and 60 fewer days per year.
At issue are 105 accrued vacation days. Chinn’s current contract allows him to carry over sick days but specifically says he does not earn vacation time. Chinn, however, has said the vacation time built up over several years before he went to the reduced schedule. The vacation time has appeared on Chinn’s wage statements.
Chinn has worked for the school district for more than 30 years, as a teacher, principal and administrative assistant.
The News reported in June that school board attorney John Werner had issued a legal opinion by letter that the accrued vacation time’s presence on pay stubs provided proof of the school district’s obligation to pay him. He pointed out that pay records and forms are audited by the state.
The board took no action in the May special meeting that was reported in the News June 2 and was added at the request of board member Sherri Flynn to Tuesday’s agenda.
Speaking at his second public meeting of the board, new Schools Superintendent John Scioldo said he investigated the issue and gathered input from several sources, including Dave Emmert, an attorney with the Indiana School Boards Association.
Scioldo said he searched old contracts and files and admitted he could find no evidence that vacation benefits were included in Chinn’s previous contracts. They were also absent from contracts of past superintendents going back about two decades
After gathering information and asking for input, Scioldo said he concluded the school board could either pay – or decline to pay – the accrued vacation time. He believed the State Board of Accounts would support either decision.
Scioldo repeatedly said Tuesday he was making no recommendation either way on the issue.
“This is straight-up a decision by the board,” he said.
One caveat, he said, was that declining to pay Chinn could lead to a lawsuit and possible damages that might either double or triple what Chinn might be owed.
Chinn has not publicly discussed filing suit and the only comment he has made in an open meeting was that he had not been paid for vacation time that has accrued on his pay stubs.
Board members Flynn and Randy Cole, who questioned paying the vacation time during discussion in May’s meeting, said they could not support paying money for vacation time when there was nothing in Chinn’s contract allowing for the benefit.
Scioldo said there were records that former Schools Superintendent Murray Pride, who departed in the early 1990s, had taken vacation days when he retired, even though there was nothing in his contract allowing for accrued vacation time.
Board member Mack Cail made a motion to pay the accrued benefits, citing the recommendation by Werner. Dr. Gene Ress seconded Cail’s motion.
Cole said he could not support the motion and said he had questions about how the accrued vacation time was added to pay stubs and who authorized vacation benefits. Cole said the authority to hire, fire and set compensation rests with the board, not superintendents.
Had a previous school board agreed to give Chinn vacation benefits, Cole said “it should be recorded in the minutes.” He said those benefits cannot be handed out by superintendents. Doing so, he said, “is taking our duty and our community’s funds and putting them at risk.”
Cail pointed out the potential for a lawsuit that would cost the corporation attorney fees and potentially a large decision against it. Cail said he preferred paying the vacation time, valued at $360 per day, instead of taking a risk at losing a lawsuit.
Cole countered that the board should stand up for what it believes to be true. He said the district always faces the threat of legal action.
Flynn pointed to information she received from the State Board of Accounts. Referencing an email from State Board of Accounts employee Ryan Preston, Flynn said any benefits Chinn would have been entitled to should have been spelled out in a collective-bargaining contract. Flynn said she had also talked with Indiana School Boards Association attorney Lisa Tanselle.
Flynn also said any agreement in which someone is promised more money for the duties already covered by a pre-existing contract could not be enforced.
Flynn and Cole both said they regretted the situation Chinn had been placed in and Flynn said the controversy is not fair to him. But she said the problem over unwritten vacation benefits was created by a “handshake deal on the side,”that took place outside of a board meeting.
Flynn acknowledged the legal uncertainties of a possible lawsuit but also pointed out that paying Chinn without contract provisions set a precedent. She worried the board would have trouble denying similar payouts in the future if someone said they had been promised a benefit for which there was no record.
Cail countered by making reference to a note he said Flynn had passed to former Superintendent Lynn Blinzinger during a May meeting in which she reportedly said she supported paying Chinn the vacation time he claimed he was owed.
Flynn said the note was written without her having complete and accurate information. Cail said he wanted a “yes or no” answer about the note and that drew a sharp rebuke from Flynn, who said Cail was not an attorney.
Ress had the final comment on the issue. He said the presence of accrued vacation time on Chinn’s pay stubs, in his mind, created a clear obligation.
He also admitted that the school district’s records and contracts are “a lot better now.”
The vote to approve payment to Chinn passed 3-2 with Cail, Ress and Larry Kleeman voting in favor and Cole and Flynn voting nay.
Flynn asked for a roll-call vote, allowed for under Robert’s Rules of Order, in which each member individually voices their vote.
After the meeting, Flynn told the News she had exited the closed executive session meeting of the board that preceded Tuesday’s open session and said the board discussed issues that should have been talked about in a public session.