We originally put in a public information request to get a copy of the employment contract for Houston ISD's new superintendent Richard Carranza, but while we were tapping out the request on HISD's open records web form, we decide to also ask for former Superintendent Terry Grier's separation agreement.
Most working folks have jobs where you can be hired, fired or quit at any time -- ideally with some notice but not required -- which is called "at will" employment. Most executives, including the superintendent of Houston ISD, have employment contracts that govern the terms of their employment, and some of the many terms of those contracts are the rules governing termination of that executive.
Dr. Grier's contract made mutual promises about what date he would be guaranteed employment and what date he agreed to work until. That date was in June 2016. Because of these promises in the contract, when Dr. Grier announced his resignation, he needed the HISD trustees to agree to a separation. Otherwise, he would be in breach of contract for not working until the specified end date.
This type of separation prior to a contract end isn't unusual, and usually the parties come together to work out mutually agreeable terms to an early separation. Those terms usually include whether to pay the person accumulated compensation for retirement, unused vacation, partial bonuses, etc., and the employer usually receives guarantees by the employee to remain helpful in transition, indemnify them in future lawsuits, etc. And frankly, when the executive chooses to leave early, usually they risk losing unpaid compensation as ultimately it is that compensation that organizations was using to incentivize the employee to stay.
Anyway, we were interested to know what Houston ISD received in return for letting Dr. Grier out of his contract early -- after all, the district had to pay Ken Heuwitt extra to take over the job on an interim basis. Surely the trustees negotiated some valuable consideration for paying out his bonuses early and taking on the expense of interim leadership.
To our surprise, here was the district's response to the request...
This was kind of shocking for two reasons:
1) An executive with annual compensation averaging close to $500,000 each year based on an employment contract would almost never -- ever -- leave their employment without some sort of agreement no matter which party was initiating the termination. Even low-level employees are often subjected to termination agreements as a condition of getting severance. Any company wanting to protect itself from future litigation would have a separation agreement with an employee that it was paying compensation to upon his or her exit from the organization.
2) Some of us were physically present at the January board meeting when HISD trustees voted to approve his bonuses and separation agreement. We watched them deliberate (several stated they were displeased that they weren't given notice that it had been put on the agenda and brought up for consideration at an agenda review meeting rather than a regular monthly meeting), vote 5 - 0 - 4, and then sign a document handed to them by board counsel David Thompson. If there is no separation agreement, what did we witness that day in January and what exactly was recorded in the official minutes of the meeting?
So we wrote back to the open records office with that exact question...
And a few days later, here was the response...
Confounded, we responded with this...
That was 4 days ago, and we have received no response from the district.
As is the case regularly, we are left not knowing whether the lack of transparency is due to incompetence or active obstruction. We'll let you know what we hear next.