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Published: Wednesday, 10/19/2011

Pay raises draw ire in Oregon

BY GABRIELLE RUSSON
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Paul Drake III's wife gets up an extra hour and 20 minutes early every day so she can drive their son to school since the financially troubled district cut busing for some high school students this year, he said.

But adding to his frustration, Mr. Drake said, is that several school administrators received salary increases even though busing hasn't been brought back.

"I think it's appalling," said Mr. Drake, a city maintenance worker, who was among about 10 people who confronted school officials during a packed board meeting last night. "I see this as a sign of arrogance. … To give raises is terrible."

Busing was eliminated in January for all high school students.

The school board also approved salary increases in August for 13 administrators, which included a 11.3 percent increase for Superintendent Mike Zalar. The increase brings his annual pay to $130,221, up from $116,965. The three candidates running for school board have brought up the issue in recent weeks.

But last night was also a chance for board members to defend their decision, saying the district's finances were improving and the salary increases are offsetting the administrators' increased costs in health care. The district also has cut administrative positions from 34 to 22 since 2005, which the superintendent has said forced them to spread out responsibilities to remaining administrators.

Board members said Mr. Zalar, who has a doctorate degree, earns less money than other area superintendents, and the newest salary increase was important so the district could retain him.

"I just want you to know it would cost [a] lot more to hire a new person, you need to know that," said school board member Carol-Ann Molnar during the meeting, which at times, took a contentious tone as the board interacted with residents.

The board also defended its process for approving the raises.

"People say, 'Well, we're not transparent.' You can come to every meeting," school board member Richard Gabel said to the crowd of about 80 people. "Every meeting I see, this school board meeting is empty -- unless something like this happens. The press doesn't print everything that happens. They only print the things they want or the things they think are going to make news."

But several residents said they were upset with how the board handled its finances -- which could hurt the district if it asks voters to approve a school levy in the future.

"It just got my blood boiling," Michael Wegrzyn of Oregon, who has a daughter at Clay High School, said about the wage increases.

Contact Gabrielle Russon at: grusson@theblade.com or 419-724-6026.



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