The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

August 24, 2013

Finance chief search expected to take at least 6 weeks

By Kim West

— School officials said Jonathan Craft has performed well in his 11 years as chief school finance officer for Limestone County Schools, and both the school superintendent and school board chairman said they favored giving him a salary increase.

But Craft, 35, will mark his final day as Limestone’s CSFO on Aug. 30 and officially begin his $90,000 contract with Hartselle City Schools on Sept. 1.

The board of education approved his resignation during Tuesday’s board meeting, although it won’t become official until Oct. 8 due to accrued leave.

The contract with Hartselle is for three years and has a requirement for annual performance reviews. Craft, who has never been evaluated by the central office or school board, presented an $89.9 proposed budget at Limestone’s first budget hearing Aug. 20.

Hartselle’s budget hearings are set for Sept. 12 and Sept. 16. Hartselle Superintendent Vic Wilson previously said Craft could return for Limestone’s second budget hearing on Sept. 10, if necessary.

Board mulls CSFO pay

Limestone board Chairman Bret McGill said before it became known that Hartselle was considering Craft as a finalist in its nearly 6-month search to fill its CSFO vacancy, the school board passed on an informal effort by McGill and Limestone Superintendent Dr. Tom Sisk to upgrade Craft’s compensation.

The Limestone chief financial officer is currently paid $83,499. The state Legislature approved a 2 percent increase for K-12 employees effective fiscal 2014, which starts Oct. 1. Craft’s pay would have increased to $85,168.

The CSFO reports to the superintendent but has “fiduciary responsibility to the local board of education,” according to the state’s School Fiscal Accountability Act passed in 1996. School boards are responsible for three positions within a school system — the board attorney, superintendent and the CSFO.

The Limestone board gave the superintendent a favorable job review in July. It also approved Aug. 6 a 1-year extension to Sisk’s original 3-year contract and a one-time, $5,000 increase. With the 2 percent state raise, Sisk’s salary for this contract year is $122,300, compared to $115,000 for the first year.

Passing on increase

Sisk and McGill both said they preferred to retain Craft. In retrospect, the superintendent said he could have scheduled a work session to make a formal request to the board.

“I made the request to Mr. McGill to increase Jonathan’s salary before the Hartselle job, and he went to the board,” Sisk said. “This all occurred before we knew he had applied and was a finalist, and the response was ‘Let’s wait and see what happens.’ A raise has to be a recommendation by the board, but I certainly supported a raise.

“In the long run, I think this works out better for Jonathan because it gives him a fresh opportunity to do things differently with a different system, new challenges and new opportunities.”

What were the reasons for the seven-member school board to pass on increasing the pay for Craft, who was described as a "great" chief financial officer by Sisk and Wilson?

“There was never a formal offer and there never seemed to be (majority) board support about giving him a raise,” said McGill, who said Craft’s pay ranks in the middle of 11 school systems that compare to the Limestone in average daily enrollment. “I do think we’re looking at hiring in a new (CSFO) in the $85,000 to $95,000 range.”

Differing opinions

When contacted by The News Courier, board members Earl Glaze, Charles Shoulders and Marty Adams said they opposed the initial consideration for a pay increase. McGill, James Shannon and Anthony Hilliard said they favored a raise, while Darin Russell said he needed to know the amount of the increase before making a decision at that time.

Shannon said the board made a mistake by not doing more to address keeping Craft with the Limestone system. He added that Craft also had the option to speak to each board member.

Glaze said he believed Craft did not act swiftly enough to provide assistance to a school bookkeeper, a situation that Glaze said was remedied this past school year. Glaze added he “probably would have voted to give him a raise” if a formal vote had occurred. He said Craft has “done a good job,” but “I don’t believe in giving someone a raise just to keep him.”

Shoulders said the board should avoid giving a non-contract employee special consideration for a raise. He said at the time McGill mentioned the possibility of a raise, Shoulders thought “it was because Jonathan was looking to move.”

“My position was that we needed to stay with the progression we’ve always used as an employee goes from one step (on the salary schedule) to the next,” said Shoulders.

Adams said his decision was based on timing. He said Craft did “a great job.”

“At the time, my answer was no but it was not an emphatic no … we were unsure about BRAC funds at the time and it was before the state mandated the 2 percent raise (for K-12 employees),” Adams said. “It was a timing thing, and the (requested) raise wouldn’t have been an exorbitant amount. I always vote with my conscience and hated to do it because I like Jonathan a lot.”

New challenge

Craft said “it was not about the money” when he decided to leave a system with 13 schools, slightly more than 9,000 students and an $80.3 million operating budget for the current fiscal year.

Hartselle, which has six schools and 3,050 students, has an approximately $24.3 million operating budget, according to Hartselle interim CSFO Lisa McMurray.

“I have made a lot of lifelong friends during the last 11 years. All of the ladies in the accounting department and local school bookkeepers are an exceptional group of people to work with, and the (CSFO) job would not be possible without them,” said Craft, who plans to commute from Athens to Hartselle. “I am looking forward to a new challenge, and meeting and working with new people.”

Karen Tucker, director of information technology and public relations for the Limestone system, said Craft’s sense of humor and penchant for storytelling would be missed, along with his knowledge about school guidelines.

“The central office is losing an extremely intelligent and loyal employee, but I admire him for having the courage to explore his options,” Tucker said. “I felt comfortable going to him for advice on difficult decisions because he was prepared to guide me on how to follow federal, state and local guidelines. I am confident this move will benefit him personally and professionally …  Hartselle is very lucky, and I will miss him.”

Filling the vacancy

For the next several weeks, the Limestone system will be paying Craft and interim CSFO Ann Swanner, while also searching for a new finance chief during the time of year when new school budget preparations are underway and required to be submitted to the state by Sept 20.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the board approved Swanner for an interim contract capped at $23,000. She served as Limestone CSFO for 13 years and officially began work Thursday at $75 per hour. During the board’s work session on Aug. 13, Sisk told board members the salary for a new finance chief could range from $80,000 to $99,000.

The central office is in the process of updating the job description from a classified position with a salary schedule to contract-based. Sisk said a CSFO under contract must be released in order to accept a job from another a system.

During the work session, Sisk, 47, asked the board to select a finance chief with experience since he is starting his second year as superintendent.

Board members said they are looking for someone with both expertise and the ability to adapt to the school system, which is undergoing a digital technology initiative and a $26.1 million capital plan.

“I’m hoping we can find someone with qualifications that’s been a chief financial officer for a while, someone who will be a good fit since we do have a relatively young superintendent,” Russell said.

“We’re just looking for a person that can fill the shoes that Jonathan is vacating. We have had a lot of success with him, but he is moving on,” Shoulder said. "I think the search will take longer than 45 days, but I don’t know necessarily that we will be paying the new (CSFO) more than the current pay.”