Commissioners question Cartner payment


Cecil Perry


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Pasquotank County commissioners have misgivings about the $318,000 in severance the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools Board of Education will pay former superintendent Larry Cartner – a severance that will use local dollars commissioners expected to be spent on other things.

During county commissioners' finance committee meeting on Tuesday, Chairman Cecil Perry said community members have been asking him “a lot of questions” about the severance payments to Cartner.

The ECPPS board announced last month it had accepted his resignation and agreed to pay $318,000 in total severance over the next several months. According to the board and its attorney, ECPPS cannot say why it's paying the money, but, had Cartner been fired without cause, he would have been paid more than double the severance amount.

Perry said he had heard nothing officially from anyone “who has a responsibility to this board” about the severance. He raised concerns about ECPPS not communicating directly with the board before spending local dollars on the severance – a major expense ECPPS officials did not present to commissioners when they requested almost $12 million in operating funds and almost $4 million in capital projects. For those respective amounts, county commissioners ultimately approved $11.4 million and $3.2 million.

“Should there be some kind of discussion with us about the accountability for what happened?” Perry asked. “To me, it's like you giving your children some money and telling them to go do something special with it, and not waste it – I hate to use that term … well, would you not say to your children, ‘don't use my money for that’?”

Commissioner Frankie Meads similarly commented, “Well, we have a responsibility as county commissioners to make sure the money we spend goes to the place we want it to go to.”

County Finance Officer Sheri Small said ECPPS's finance officer had confirmed to her that local dollars will be used for the severance. However, she said commissioners “don't have a lot of control” over how ECPPS spends operating funds. Though ECPPS officials provided a breakdown of their operational funding request, counties simply approve the overall amount to give school systems, not specific expenses, she said.

Counties do have more control over capital projects, for which funding must be approved for specific projects, she said.

“It doesn't make any difference, it's taxpayers' money,” Meads responded.

Commissioner Joe Winslow shared Perry's concerns, describing them as about lack of communication. Winslow said everything he knew about the severance is what he's read in The Daily Advance.

“I think what Mr. Perry is talking about is communication,” Winslow said. “It does seem like the partnership we have the school system, that someone should have stepped forward and explained a few things to us since we are the ones who furnish their funding for them. To my knowledge, that has not happened.”

Perry agreed with Winslow's interpretation of his remarks.

In followup interviews this week, school board members defended the severance, and their handling of the matter as required by law.

Chairwoman Sharon Warden wrote the ECPPS board values its relationship with county commissioners, adding that “working relationship is based on mutual respect for our separate responsibilities within our community.”

She also wrote there was “no intentional withholding of information,” and ECPPS “performed our responsibilities within the legal parameters that govern personnel and attorney-client privilege.”

Vice Chairman Denauvo Robinson said he had no comment on Perry's concerns about a lack of communication, but said he was sorry Perry had likened the board to children.

Robinson also said that paying the severance wouldn't require cuts or otherwise detract from children's education.

Board member Barry Overman, also a Republican candidate for county commissioner, was more blunt about commissioners' desire for more communication.

“That would be illegal,” Overman said, stressing the board is bound by personnel laws granting Cartner confidentiality.

“That's not an excuse, it's illegal,” he reiterated.

He also said “it's a shame some people are quick to question you when they don't have the full story.”

Overman also asked for the public's trust. He said ECPPS board members include former teachers, as well as parents and taxpayers. They would not make decisions to undermine the district or education, he said.

ECPPS spokeswoman Tammy Sawyer also reiterated the payout will not “adversely affect” or “reverse” current budget decisions for 2018-2019.

“The payout will not require any cuts; however, the district will evaluate the budget to determine if, or where, there may be available funding,” she wrote.

Sawyer also reported that, as the year progresses, lapsed salaries may provide some savings. A replacement hasn't been named for assistant superintendent, a position Steve Lassiter vacated last month, she noted.

“So while we do not have much in the way of lapsed salaries at this time, that may be the case going forward,” she wrote. “Much depends on the timeline of naming a new superintendent.”

Sawyer also wrote Acting Superintendent Joanne Sanders' annual salary is $84,400, plus $1,899 a month while she is acting superintendent. Were she to serve an entire year as acting superintendent, her effective annual salary would be about $107,000 – still less than the nearly $130,000 a year Sawyer wrote Cartner was paid.