Kent School District Superintendent Israel Vela will receive a base salary of $355,000 per year under a three-year contract approved by the Kent School Board.
The board voted 4-0 in favor of the contract at its June 22 meeting. The pay is a 27% increase ($75,500) from the $279,500 per year previous Superintendent Calvin Watts made in 2021 prior to leaving last July to become superintendent of the Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia (for a base salary of $380,972). Kent hired Watts in 2015 at $250,000 per year.
Vela will receive annual reviews by the board. Under the contract, the board will consider upward adjustments in the base salary, performance bonus, cost of living increases or extension of the contract.
The annual pay for Vela is higher than the $335,000 per year for new Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Brent Jones who was hired in March after serving as an interim superintendent. Seattle Public Schools is the largest school district in the state with over 51,000 students at more than 100 schools. Kent has over 24,000 students at 42 schools.
Federal Way Public Schools hired Dani Pfeiffer as superintendent in July 2021 at $290,000 per year, according to the Federal Way Mirror newspaper. She replaced Tammy Campbell, who made $285,000 per year. Federal Way has over 20,000 students at 37 schools.
“We are really happy to be in this stage so we can get down to normalcy,” Board Director Tim Clark said prior to the approval of the contract. “The board spent a great deal of time on this. Let’s get down to the basic business of running this district.”
Board members met with Vela in executive session to reach a contract agreement. The board voted 3-2 in April to hire Vela as superintendent after it hired him last summer to be the interim superintendent.
The board hired McPherson and Jacobson, an Omaha, Nebraska-based national search firm, in January for $25,500 to help find a new superintendent. Twenty-four people applied for the job. The search firm narrowed the list to eight and the board selected the final three, including Vela. He was hired over Keisha Scarlett, assistant superintendent of academics for Seattle Public Schools and Mary Templeton, superintendent of the Washougal School District, just east of Vancouver in Clark County.
“I’m thankful we were able to work through this contract and all parties are satisfied with the contract and that interim is no longer part of Superintendent Vela anymore,” Board Director Awale Farah said prior to the vote.
The contract includes language that makes sure Vela will get severance pay even if the board decides to terminate his contract early. The contract states Vela would receive 12 months of annual base salary or the option to return to his former position as chief school operations and academic support officer.
Vela was hired for that district position in July 2016 under Watts prior to taking the interim superintendent job last summer. From 2012-2016, Vela served as executive director of schools, overseeing the southwest region of schools in Seattle Public Schools.
Vela was principal of Meridian Elementary School in Kent from 1999-2005 after working 10 years as a teacher in the Moses Lake and Lake Washington school districts.
Michele Bettinger resigned June 21 from the Kent School Board, in part because she said, “I no longer feel professionally or personally safe asking questions, trying to get items on the agenda for discussion or while attending executive session.”
In a July 1 email response to the Kent Reporter about her reaction to Vela’s contract, she said it supports her reasons for leaving the board.
“This document affirms my decision to resign as I would not be willing to be responsible for the outcomes of that contract,” Bettinger said.
Bettinger, who along with Director Joe Bento voted against hiring Vela as superintendent because they wanted to extend the search to replace Watts, said she would have voted against approval of the contract.
“First, I think it’s a violation of public trust that this contract was voted upon without the public seeing it,” Bettinger said. “Best practice for transparency would’ve had this contract available before the meeting for the public to view and make comment prior to the vote.”
Staff posted on the district’s website the June 22 agenda that included the item for the board to vote on the superintendent’s contract. But staff didn’t post the contract as part of the documents available to the public.
In fact, when the Kent Reporter requested the contract from the district, the communications office staff the paper would need to file a public records request. The Kent Reporter filed that request but it had yet to receive the contract.
It wasn’t until KSD Discussion Group, a private Facebook page that serves as a watchdog of district actions, posted a request June 30 for the contract to be posted and emailed Hamada the same request before the document was posted July 1 to the board agenda documents.
Bettinger said she also has concerns about how the contract takes away the ability of the board to meet the obligations of their oath of office and to be accountable to those who elected them, particularly section 4 “Administrative Interference: Communication and Relationship.”
“This should have a chilling effect on the community, and it seems to ‘contract away’ the duty of board directors to ask questions in oversight of the actions of the superintendent and limit their ability to execute their oaths of office,” Bettinger said.
In part section 4 states, “The superintendent and the board will collaborate regularly on district communications to ensure that the superintendent and the board’s messaging both within and outside the district is aligned, even when those communications express divergent points of view.”
Bettinger also opposes the additional work pay for Vela allowed in section 5.
“Even more troubling is Section 5 which now allows the Kent superintendent to engage in additional work ‘with or without honorarium’ at only the approval of the board president,” Bettinger said. “Delegating authority to one director is problematic in itself but this section sets the district back several years by allowing activities that previous boards sought to correct and avoid.
“The previous board updated the last contract to limit these questionable activities by the previous superintendent (Watts). These activities – allowed by this contract with only the oversight of one director – have been of national concern; this trend of superintendents engaging in questionable consulting and potential kickback activities should worry any citizen.”