Fla. college presidents given expensive perks
Published: Monday, May 13, 2013 at 11:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, May 13, 2013 at 11:00 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — An investigation ordered by Gov. Rick Scott has determined that the pay and benefits of state college presidents vary widely with little explanation as to why some presidents earn large six-figure salaries.
This same review shows many presidents have contracts with provisions that appear to violate state law — or in some instances, the contracts automatically renew each year without approval by local college boards.
Randy Hanna, chancellor of the Florida College System, said the critical review is prompting college boards across the state to alter and amend the contracts now offered to presidents.
According to the Inspector General's report, Santa Fe College was one of six colleges that provided their presidents with post-employment perquisites that "when combined with severance pay could exceed the allowable severance" package allowed by state law.
Florida statutes state that any contract after July 1, 2011, cannot provide a severance package "of an amount greater than 20 weeks of compensation."
President Jackson Sasser's compensation package of $409,739 for 2012-13 is the ninth highest among the state colleges. He receives a base pay of $260,000 and add-ons such as deferred pay, a severance package, contribution to the state retirement system and a vehicle allowance.
He also gets two perks upon leaving Santa Fe — the vehicle the college gave him and free health, dental and vision insurance for life.
Scott last year ordered his chief inspector general to review the salaries and benefits offered to the 28 presidents in the state college system after trustees at a Jacksonville college agreed to a $1.2 million severance package with the outgoing president.
The inquiry did not cover the salaries and benefits paid to presidents at the state's 12 public universities — which include schools such as the University of Florida and Florida State University.
The final report released Monday showed that presidents in the state college system are receiving nearly $10 million in salaries and benefits during the current fiscal year.
Some of the salaries range from nearly $144,000 for the president of North Florida Community College to more than $630,000 to the president at Miami-Dade College.
State law limits college president salaries to $225,000 if the money comes directly from state taxpayers. But colleges are allowed to augment the salary with money from other sources.
Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel noted that in some instances the total amount of pay and benefits offered to presidents "was not readily transparent" or that some contracts offered benefits for life, which means the total owed by taxpayers is difficult to calculate.
In a letter to Miguel, Robert C. Hudson, chairman of the board of trustees for Santa Fe, wrote that the board decided in 2008 to reward Sasser for refusing to accept a salary increase. Those provisions were added to his contract in 2009, Hudson wrote, two years before the law changed.
Hudson said the board of trustees would "continue to review the findings and consider adoption of any recommended practices."
The board chose to "retain these contractual provisions with the firm understanding that the benefits were intended to reward the president for services already performed and did not constitute severance pay," Hudson said.
Sasser said he was paid "real well to take the heat" and that the perks were minor issues.
"Not only are we going to comply with the law but the perception of the law," he said. "This is not an issue."
One former president at a college in Bradenton received nearly $21,000 for health insurance premiums. Dennis Gallon, president of Palm Beach State College, receives a stipend of nearly $96,000 instead of a car and housing allowance. E. Ann McGee, president of Seminole State College, is receiving $1,000 a year to pay for home Internet access.
Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia College, gets a golf club membership and membership in the group that hosts the Florida Citrus Bowl as part of his nearly $479,000 compensation package. Auditors also found that Shugart received a $190,000 lump sum bonus in 2012.
Miguel called on college board trustees to establish guidelines for compensation and to spell out how much taxpayers will be responsible for paying after the president is no longer working for the school.
"My belief is we will able to work with the local boards and colleges and meet the recommendations," Hanna said.
Miguel's probe also noted that most colleges had contracts that appear to violate state laws designed to restrict severance packages paid to presidents who either resign voluntarily or are forced to leave their job.
State law was changed in 2011 to limit payouts, but many contracts included provisions that would allow a president to receive a payout above what is allowed in law.
Hillsborough Community College President Ken Atwater was given a contract after the law changed that guarantees him a year's worth of salary even if he is fired.
Hanna noted that the issue of severance payments has been an issue for universities as well after the law was changed. State auditors in February criticized Florida A&M University for having a contract that allowed former President James Ammons to receive a one-year paid sabbatical after he abruptly resigned.
Additionally, 11 colleges had so-called "rolling" contracts that automatically renewed each year without requiring a vote by college trustees. Only eight colleges tied contracts to performance goals.
The Associated Press and staff writer Jeff Schweers contributed to this report.
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