The Harris County Board of Education is paying former Harris County High School principal Roger Couch to come out of retirement to be superintendent for a salary that's more than predecessor Jimmy Martin' initial salary and nearly as much as Martin's final salary, despite Martin having a doctorate with 10 years of superintendent experience and Couch lacking both.
Amid a dispute that both sides have declined to specify, Martin resigned May 10, effective immediately. As the Ledger-Enquirer reported last month, the severance agreement requires the board to pay Martin 15 months worth of salary, totaling $173,893.75, to not be superintendent in exchange for relinquishing the final year of his contract, most recently amended May 11, 2017, and extended to June 30, 2020.
The seven-member board unanimously hired Martin in April 2014 from Chattahoochee County, where he was superintendent for six years. But only two of the current seven Harris County board members, Steve Goodoe and Bethany Lucas, were on the board then.
At that time, Karen Hopkins, then the Harris County board’s chairwoman, said Martin’s initial salary would be the same package retired superintendent Craig Dowling received: $135,000 per year. Martin’s last salary in ChattCo was $107,800. In the past four years, Martin’s salary in Harris County had increased to $139,115.
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May 15, the board announced the appointment of Couch as interim superintendent. Six weeks later, without interviewing any other candidates or advertising the vacancy, the board — without public discussion — unanimously made official what increasingly had been clear as it had approved Couch's recommendations to hire three assistant superintendents and two principals: Couch will continue to lead the Harris County School District.
After that June 28 called meeting, board chairman Shane Lipp declined to tell the Ledger-Enquirer how much the board will pay Couch, but he did say the contract will be for one year, which started July 1. Couch and Lipp said they and the rest of the board will determine during the next year whether to extend the contract.
This week, board attorney Jeff Todd of the LaGrange law firm Lewis, Taylor & Todd, complied with the L-E's request for Couch's contract, showing a $136,800 salary — $1,800 more than Martin's initial salary in Harris County and only $2,315 less than Martin's final salary in Harris County.
Martin earned a doctorate in educational leadership from Auburn University. Couch's most advanced certification is a specialist degree in educational leadership from the University of Georgia.
Asked to explain the board's rationale for the salary discrepancy between Couch and Martin compared to their qualifications, Lipp told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email Tuesday, "With regards to compensation when hiring a superintendent, which is, in effect, the CEO for the school system, it is customary to consider a number of factors when establishing salary. Like in any business situation, each agreement is unique and has its own points of negotiation. While advanced degrees are certainly a component of the discussions, Mr. Couch has a wealth of administrative experience and has shown the board the vision, capacity, and leadership required to help guide the school system going forward.
"We feel very fortunate to have had such a qualified educator within our community. Having spent many years living and working with the people of Harris County, he understands our community, and, most importantly, our schools. We are thankful that he is willing to come out of retirement to serve the district."
Lipp also further explained why the board hired Couch and didn't advertise the position or interview any other candidates.
"He exceeded our expectations during the interim period — immediately filling vacant leadership positions by both promoting from within as well as recruiting prior talent back into the district — providing us the confidence that he is ready and able to take this school district and move it forward," Lipp said. "We believe in the team he has built and are pleased with the quick action that we’ve already seen. It’s as if a valve has been opened and positive things are happening like we haven’t seen in sometime.
"Many people don’t understand the calendar by which a school district works. July 1 is the first day of the school year for administrators — that’s just one month from when teachers report followed quickly by students. With Mr. Couch’s abilities, interest and availability, the board felt it was best to avoid spending a great deal of taxpayers’ money and precious time conducting a superintendent search when we had a very qualified candidate here already. In addition, at the time when several school board positions were up for election, we agreed upon a one-year contract. This will provide both parties with the opportunity to re-evaluate the situation in one year and have the full board involved with the process."