LOWELL -- Superintendent of Schools Jean Franco got the contract extension she was seeking Wednesday night, but it is only for one year, after the School Committee shortened it in executive session.
Franco's contract, which was due to expire Monday, will now run through June 30, 2015, after the board voted 6-1, with Mayor Rodney Elliott opposed, to give her a one-year extension.
Franco did not speak during the meeting, but afterward said, "There's no lame duck here. I'm going to work hard. I want people working with me. I want collaboration to get the district prepared for transition. That's my job. I work for young people, with all due respect to adults."
She said she thinks it will be her last contract in Lowell based on the committee's vote to shorten the length from two years to one year. "My job is to make sure that the district runs smoothly and I'm given the respect to do the job right."
If there are extension talks, they would have to happen quickly given the short contract.
"If there is the possibility of an extension, that would have to come mutually," Franco said, adding that she would like to stay longer, "but I know what I've been offered so I'll work around it."
Her original contract extension, which appeared on last week's agenda, was for two years, but member Connie Martin abruptly made a motion to discuss the contract in executive session. That took place in a special meeting on Wednesday that saw the committee first meet for 30 minutes before calling Franco into the room for a 30-minute discussion. The committee then met for 15 minutes before bringing Franco back into the room for 15 minutes.
In total, the committee met for about an hour and 45 minutes in executive session in the mayor's reception room before returning to the City Council chambers for its regular meeting. More than two dozen teachers and administrators in support of Franco watched the proceedings, including Paul Georges, president of the United Teachers of Lowell.
Franco refused comment on why the committee wanted to shorten the length of her contract. "Executive session is executive session, I don't want to talk about the content," she said.
Committee members who spoke before taking the roll-call vote tended to support Franco as the city's top school official while criticizing the process that led to Wednesday night's vote.
Martin said during the meeting, "I am looking forward to supporting the one-year contract. I am very appreciative to my colleagues and the superintendent that we had the opportunity to discuss what I think are substantive issues. I appreciate the superintendent's candor to be able to discuss what I think are very problematic situations. Her clarity and honesty in talking to us gave me a great deal of confidence going forward. I'm looking forward to working with the superintendent. It was my motion that brought us into this conversation and I appreciate the opportunity to have it, even if everyone else didn't."
After the meeting, Martin said she thought slowing down the process to discuss Franco's contract, even at the 11th hour, was worth it.
"It changed for me my understanding of the actions she had taken, put them in a whole new light, and made me comfortable going forward. I wanted the whole committee to have an opportunity to talk about it," she said.
"Looking at the difference between a one-year and a two-year deal, I felt that was a great way for us to move forward and let the superintendent know we're working together to keep this district moving forward. I said it in executive session, we're able to come at this with a clean slate and we're able to decide what happens in the second year. That just hasn't been decided yet. We have some time to make some logical decisions and work with the superintendent to see what happens next."
Committee member Stephen Gendron, who opposed Martin's motion last week to steer the discussion into executive session, said, "I support this one-year contract because it's the will of the committee. I was in support of the two-year contract, and made that clear.
"I feel this process has been flawed. I feel this is not the most professional way to handle the superintendent's contract. I feel as though the committee gathered many times in executive session to discuss the contract. We made a proposal to the superintendent. We negotiated with the superintendent. The superintendent accepted our proposal. We all agreed, and then at the last minute, we pulled the rug out from the superintendent.
"She's graciously agreed to accept the one-year contract in replacement of that, but I think that's not an appropriate way for the committee to go about negotiations with administrators. It sets a bad tone for future negotiations. I'm unhappy with the way it went down. I don't feel it was a professional way to handle it. I realize something came up between the time we offered the contract and the meeting. I see the issues, but they're not worthy of changing the direction on the contract. I look forward to working with the superintendent for the next year, but I want to go on record as being really dissatisfied with the way this was handled."
Committee member Jim Leary said he agreed with Gendron's criticism of the contract being shortened to one year, but also supported Martin's motion to discuss the contract in executive session before signing off on it. "If you have something to say, it's important to get that out before signing the contract."
Committee member David Conway added, "I appreciate the work the superintendent has done and the dedication she has to the district and the students... I look forward to working with you. Going forward, we obviously are going to disagree. We disagree among ourselves. We will disagree with you. You will disagree with us. We are professionals who will work hard to make sure the ultimate goal is achieved, the best education for our students."
Elliott said he opposed the contract for philosophical reasons as he has long advocated against contracts for chief administrators such as the city manager, city auditor and superintendent of schools. "In my opinion, contracts are good for employees, not good for taxpayers. I go to work every day without a contract. Most hard-working residents do the same. I think she does a good job. I support her. I just don't support contracts. I want to be consistent and that was my concern with not voting for it. It's not about the superintendent. It's my position on contracts."
The terms are similar to the previously agreed-to contract. Franco will be paid an annual salary of no less than $175,992.50 and would be eligible for a 1 percent cost-of-living increase.
Franco will also be eligible for a merit raise based on the School Committee's evaluation of her. If she achieves a rating of "proficient," Franco will receive a 2 percent pay increase. Franco will receive a 3 percent pay increase if she receives a performance rating of "exemplary."
Franco was selected as superintendent in April 2011 to replace the outgoing Chris Scott. Her tenure as superintendent began in July 2011.
Her starting salary as superintendent was $170,000 and her initial deal called for her to be eligible for a percentage increase in pay in the third year of the contract if the United Teachers of Lowell received an increase during the 2013-14 academic year.
Franco came to Lowell in 1996 as a Spanish bilingual facilitator, a role she continued in until being named assistant superintendent for Student Support Services in 2002.
Martin said after the meeting that Franco's tenure going forward does not have to be a series of one-year contracts. "We can have that conversation. I'm absolutely open to anything."
Although Martin was chided by some of her colleagues as to the way she handled it, she said, "I have no regrets. I've been doing this for 15 years. I've done this job the same way for 15 years. People know my integrity. They know the way I come at this work. I've always done it the same way. If I hadn't made this move, I wouldn't have felt comfortable moving forward. This gave us an opportunity to have the conversation with ourselves and the superintendent so we can be confident moving forward."
Franco said she wants to improve relations with the committee.
"I honestly want this to be above board. I want to have respect back and forth. I'm going to anticipate that. If it doesn't happen, I'll go there as well," she said. "I am too busy doing this job to have any kind of bad feelings. I would not agree to do this if I didn't think I could rise above it and I thought people wouldn't be with me. I have to stay positive."