Homewood-Flossmoor District 233 school board members knew they had a solid leader in Laura Murray. They offered her an acting superintendent’s contract in 1993, and awarded her a superintendent’s contract in 1994, 1997, 2001 and again in 2006 because they wanted her to stay on.
The contract language included two 20 percent raises in her final years with the district. Those salary bumps have been controversial since 2008 when the Teachers Retirement System (TRS) notified the district it would need to pay an additional $225,884 to cover Murray’s pension.
TRS says the district owed the money because the raise went above the 6 percent that a 2005 state law set as a standard for raises. District 233 twice argued the case in court saying Murray should have been grandfathered in under an exemption clause in the law. It lost both times. The school board decided not to continue the legal action and paid TRS the “excess salary increase” in March 2009.
As Gov. Bruce Rauner and legislators examine pension costs, the excess pay by District 233 has again made the headlines and board members are defending their actions.
Murry comes to H-F
Murray started as principal at Homewood-Flossmoor High School and stepped in as superintendent during a turbulent period.
Murray was 40 years old when she arrived at H-F in 1991 after having served as director of guidance and assistant principal at Hinsdale Township High School. She replaced Charles Smith, who had been the H-F principal for 20 years.
Murray first worked under Superintendent Edward Rachford during his last year of a 20-year career at H-F. Marvin Feinberg replaced Rachford. Feinberg was hired on a two-year contract starting July 1, 1992, but he had such a rocky relationship with the school board that by October 1993, Feinberg wasn’t even present at H-F.
When Feinberg turned in his resignation in December 1993, the board immediately accepted it and asked Murray to take the acting superintendent position, as well as continuing to serve as principal.
However, the school board allowed Feinberg’s retirement date to be June 30,1994, the end of his contract. That decision allowed Feinberg to take advantage of the state’s early retirement incentives, according to a published report.
The board needed to recover from the leadership upheaval and believed Murray was very qualified to be superintendent. She accepted the superintendent’s position July 1,1994 at a salary of $107,500. Murray continued as superintendent for 14 years until June 30, 2008. While at H-F, she was highly recruited by other high school districts in Illinois and across the country, noted Jodi Bryant, director of human resources and public relations at H-F.
When the board offered Murray a 2001 contract, it knew that a high number of faculty retirements were in the offing, explained Bryant. The board wanted someone who would be able to guide the district during this major shift in staff and believed that Murray was that person.
The last official contract between Murray and District 233 was for five years—2001-2006. For the years 2000 to 2006, Murray’s raises were between 4.81 and 5.12 percent, Bryant said. The board gave her several bonuses between 2003 and 2006 ranging from $38,000 to $50,000 to entice her to stay at her superintendent’s post.
Murray’s final years at H-F
Murray and District 233 had the option to extend the 2001-2006 contract for up to three years. In 2006, Murray told the board she would be retiring. She chose to extend the contract for the next two school years. That contract, first written in 2001, granted her 20 percent raises during her final years as superintendent.
Minutes from the April 18, 2006 board meeting reflect the board’s admiration for Murray. The board accepted her letter of intent to retire effective June 2008 “with deepest regret.” Hank Galatz voted a “symbolic no” because he didn’t want Murray to leave.
Board minutes show that member Mallory Sutton asked, “If everyone voted ‘no’ does that mean Dr. Murray cannot go?” The minutes continue: “Mr. (Robert) Butler noted that this was talked about in closed session, and this is an extension of Dr. Murray’s existing contract for two more years, which is positive.”
In the 2006 record, Jody Scariano says she was a member of the board for eight years of Murray’s tenure. She said the board “has seen Dr. Murray lead this Viking ship with intelligence, compassion, integrity and loyalty” and was certain Murray would continue with her excellent track record during her final two years.
Also, the minutes show John Farrell noting that other school boards can be contentious. The bickering sidetracks them from making sound decisions. Farrell said that at H-F “so much is taken care of in focusing how to improve programming for our students. That is a compliment to Dr. Murray.”
For the final two years at H-F, Murray’s salary was $228,600 in 2006-2007 and $273,600 in 2007-2008. Her pension today is $288,471 annually.
Bryant said although the controversy is about Murray’s pay, the district also gave 20 percent salary adjustments to faculty who were retiring. Between 1998 and 2008, District 233 had approximately 80 percent of its faculty retire, she noted.
“The board realized that by offering retirement incentives, the district would ultimately save money. The salary of a retirement-age teacher equaled the salaries for two to three new teachers,” Bryant explained. “With these incentives, many staff members retired, allowing for the third generation of teachers and administrators to begin their careers at H-F at a substantial cost savings to the school district.“
Board members comment
The Homewood-Flossmoor Chronicle reached out to the four board members who were serving in 2006—Jody Scariano, John Farrell, David Mayer and Richard Lites—to ask about Murray’s 20 percent salary increases. Only Scariano and Mayer responded.
“It was agreed upon by the seven board members who were serving at that time that we as a board would honor her contract,” Scariano said, noting the board’s earlier comments.
Mayer said: “This action occurred almost a decade ago and was based on a 2001 contract.” He added, “What I think is much more relevant today is the fact that so many schools are in financial trouble in the state of Illinois, yet Homewood-Flossmoor High School has been rated AAA by S&P (Standard & Poors) and is in excellent financial health. Only 69 schools have been given this distinction.
“It is based on our healthy fund balances, a balanced budget, excellent management, 5- and 10-year planning, etc. The reason that H-F is in the healthy financial position it is today is because of the leadership of our administration, the school board and a community that supports excellent education,” Mayer noted.
Photos are from the Homewood-Flossmoor High School website or from the 2007 H-F yearbook.
H-F Board provides position on 2005 pension policy violation (HF Chronicle, June 18, 2014)