by Jim Boyle
The Elk River Area School Board, featuring three new members, gave Superintendent Mark Bezek high marks on his latest performance review.
The former school chief for Fergus Falls, who was hired in Elk River five years ago to pick up the pieces of a district that was falling apart, delivered on his initial promises to get the district back on solid financial footing and improve test scores.
He is also credited with bringing about the transparency the School Board felt was missing from the previous administration.
Five years later, with a new set of challenges staring the school district in its face, the school chief continues to enjoy the support of the School Board.
Bezek’s current contract, which has one year left, was recently amended to compensate him for a job well done.
Bezek had taken a voluntary pay freeze in Year 1 of his current contract. His salary for Year 2 and 3 was not specified but allowed for them to be negotiated.
School board members, in crafting an addendum, wanted to do three things. They wanted to create a competitive executive contract, retain Bezek and set the stage for the next contract.
Bezek’s initial contract was a bare bones model drawn up by a school district that felt burned when the previous superintendent, Alan Jensen, left.
The board discussed several approaches, including one that was deemed illegal by counsel. In the end they settled on one similar to one of the initial contract proposals that was discussed.
Board members wrestled with how to balance creating a competitive contract while still retaining an ability to incentivise the next contract to maximize Bezek’s performance during the next several years.
Under the terms of the addendum, Bezek will receive an $8,210 increase to his 2010–2011 salary and a $10,332 increase for the last year of his contract. Both figures represent his Teachers Retirement Annuity payments for the two-year period. The addendum also allows the superintendent to convert up to 10 sick leave days and 10 vacation days by July 31, 2011, and the same amount for the third year of his contract by Dec. 31, 2011. If Bezek chooses to use these options, he could receive an additional $27,919.
Board Chair Sue Farber said the district is not creating precedence through this decision. Approximately seven years ago the then-School Board recognized that district teachers were not compensated competitively; that board awarded the teachers an 11.5 percent increase to make their contracts more competitive, she said.
“I consider these adjustments to be minor when one considers how Dr. Bezek has turned this district around,” said Director Janelle Henry. “He needs to be compensated for the job he does.”
Director Jolene Jorgensen noted that she always places students first, and in voting yes she said this is an “important investment” in supporting all learners.
Said Farber, “In approving the addendum, directors Henry, Jorgensen, Walter and I (directors Steinbrecher, Thompson and Bunting were unable to attend) emphasize that unlike other contracts in our district that continue forward, our superintendent’s contract expires in its entirety June 30 of next year. We will offer Dr. Bezek another three-year contract and start from scratch, but will work hard to present a fair, equitable and transparent new contract that ensures our stakeholders continue to have a superintendent who can, and will, continue to move our district forward in an innovative, positive way and who is dedicated to educating, inspiring and empowering every learner in our district.”
Board members gave Bezek an overall scored of 3.68 on a 4-point scale. He was evaluated in 10 performance areas, his lowest score falling a hair below a 3.5.
And although he was graded on certain aspects of his performance, Farber said she would be remiss in not stating a few things Bezek has accomplished in the last year.
“In this very tough economic time, Mark and his finance staff have positioned our district to be able to weather the current financial crisis without any cuts in staffing or programming,” she said.
Farber also went on to compliment the Teaching and Learning Team for bringing innovative ideas and programming as well as human resources for finding ways to encourage personal and professional growth.
This past year the school district held a series of community conversations at community cafes, and now the district is pursuing the next step to updating the district’s strategic plan.
Bezek’s highest marks came in the areas of delegating and defining responsibility and authority and his success in establishing relationships with legislators, other superintendents around the state and local government leaders.
His lowest score was 3.45 for keeping school board members informed and advising them about district programs, practices, problems and activities under their authority.
The review took very little time, Farber said, as board members were in agreement how to proceed.
Approving the addendum to his current contract was not as easy.
It took several months to hammer out an agreement, and then it was learned that the approach that had been taken was considered illegal.
The final wording didn’t change how much the district was paying out, but rather the manner it which it was handled.
Next round of contract talks primed
An enhanced contract and a solid review position the School Board and the superintendent well for its next endeavor —negotiating a three-year contract.
“My goal is to finish out my career here,” he told the Star News last month as members of the board worked on the addendum to his contract.
Farber said at Monday’s meeting Bezek is the person “who can truly help our district continue toward its quest to educate, inspire and empower our diverse learners, to shape their futures, to accomplish their dreams and to contribute positively to our local and global communities.”
Farber said under Bezek’s leadership, the district has developed a strategic plan, created complete transparency in the district’s financial operations and received state and national awards for that transparency.
She said that during the past three years our district has realized more than $50 million in continued funding or savings through reorganization, negotiations with vendors and the implementation of new practices.
Educationally, a few of the many programs our district has implemented are the 7 Correlates of Effective Schools, two Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) schools on line, on-line interactive classrooms and most recently refined and supported secondary music programs and added sixth-graders to the music program.