Dist. 200 candidates differ on superintendent's separation agreement

 
 
Updated 3/16/2015 9:58 AM
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  • The candidates running for Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 school board are, upper row from left, Chris Crabtree, James Gambaiani and Gary Tonn, and lower row from left, James Vroman and Judith Zapf.

    The candidates running for Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 school board are, upper row from left, Chris Crabtree, James Gambaiani and Gary Tonn, and lower row from left, James Vroman and Judith Zapf.

It's been almost a year since Brian Harris left Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200, but the five candidates running for three open school board seats this spring believe the former superintendent's separation agreement still resonates.

Harris ended his 4-year tenure as superintendent last May with more than four years left on a five-year contract to accept the same post with Barrington Unit District 220.

He faced a $40,000 penalty for breaking his contract with less than 180 days notice, but the board voted 5-2 to waive the fee.

As part of that agreement, the board chose not to hire a search firm and instead required Harris to identify at least five qualified candidates who could replace him.

That decision gets mixed reviews from the five board candidates, incumbents Jim Gambaiabi and James Vroman and newcomers Gary Tonn, Chris Crabtree and Judith Zapf.

Zapf, a 48-year-old Realtor, said she believes not holding Harris to the $40,000 penalty and having him help with the search was "a good decision for the district."

"It bought us a year of forward momentum that we otherwise would have likely lost as we searched for the perfect candidate," she said.

Zapf said District 200 has had five superintendents -- including interims -- over the past five years.

That includes Charles Baker, who served eight months as an interim leader before the board found Harris. Zapf said she was worried a similar situation would occur when Harris left, but she was pleased by the quick turnaround in hiring Jeffrey Schuler from Kaneland Community Unit District 302.

"In meeting Dr. Schuler and watching him jump in and hit the ground running, it's like we haven't missed a beat," she said. "We aren't in a holding pattern at all."

But Tonn, a 62-year-old District 200 special education teacher assistant, said he didn't think waiving the fee was necessary.

"For a lot of reasons, it shouldn't had been that hard to move Jeff Schuler over here," he said, noting that District 200 is bigger than Kaneland and pays more. "I have no idea whether Mr. Harris was instrumental in doing that or not, but it doesn't seem to be like a hard sell to me."

While Tonn doesn't think $40,000 is a huge amount of money for the district, he believes waiving the fee sent the wrong message to the public and teachers, who are in contract negotiations this year.

"You did two things," he said. "You alienated people out in the community ... but then you also had teachers pointing to it, saying, 'We sacrificed over the last few years and now this was something in his contract and you're giving up on it?'"

Crabtree, 50, the District 200 Parent Teacher Association president, said she thought the district "made out very well in the deal" with Harris.

"We could've taken that $40,000 and hired a search firm, but there's nobody that knows our district better than the people who are working within our district," she said.

Crabtree said she had an opportunity to sit in some discussions with the final candidates and she was impressed with all of them.

"I do think the quality of those candidates is because we had Dr. Harris being an instrumental person in finding them for us," she said.

Overall, she said, she was amazed with the "seamless transition" that occurred between Harris and Schuler. She commended Harris, too, for still offering her advice and helping out the district even after he started his job as superintendent in Barrington.

"You kind of have to weigh those things," she said.

Vroman, a 66-year-old retired attorney, said he was in favor of having Harris help with the selection of his successor in exchange for waiving the fee.

"We had an experience in hiring a search firm when we hired Superintendent (Richard) Drury and frankly, our experience with that search effort didn't turn out well," he said. "We spent about $29,000 for that search firm."

Vroman said he knew Harris was well-connected in the education community and was confident he would be able to help the district find someone quickly.

"As it turns out, we got 15 names and resumes through Brian for the superintendent position," Vroman said. "We were able to kick off those interviews in the second week in June -- three weeks after Brian announced he was leaving and two weeks after his official resignation."

It's only been a few months, but Vroman said he is happy with Schuler so far and "so glad we were able to hire him."

"I attribute that to Brian's efforts," he said.

Gambaiani, on the other hand, was one of two board members who voted against Harris' separation agreement.

"We have a contract in place for a purpose and he knew, clearly, that if he didn't give us ample notice there was a financial obligation," the 62-year-old software company CEO said.

Gambaiani said he understood the other board members' logic when they said they wanted Harris to help them find a new superintendent, but he believes the district's reputation of being a "destination" district would have drawn plenty of good candidates in time.

"Oftentimes we, as board members, let the calendar dictate our decisions, and you just can't. You have to let it play out," he said. "I was very comfortable having (Assistant Superintendent for Educational Services) Faith (Dahlquist) continue in the interim and allowing that pool of candidates to grow over time and then we could regroup."

Gambaiani said, however, that in the end, the district found a good candidate.

"I'm very pleased with Dr. Schuler right now," he said. "But I still believe we did a disservice to the stakeholders of this school district by allowing Dr. Harris to walk from that obligation."

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