BY KATHLEEN McGRORY
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Miami-Dade School Board members were willing to pay Larry Feldman $120,000 a year to be principal of Devon Aire K-8 Center near Kendall.
But when he offered to do the same job for $1 a year plus benefits, the district turned him down.
Career educator Feldman, 58, had agreed to retire at the end of this school year. Then, taking stock of the district´s financial woes, he offered to stay on for a token salary.
Superintendent Rudy Crew and the School Board declined. Their argument: A position budgeted at $1 a year plus benefits could not be filled if Feldman left before year´s end.
Feldman said he hopes they will reconsider.
“Do I know it´s going to end at one point? Of course, I do,” he said after school Tuesday. “But new life has been thrust into this old body. With one more year, I could take these kids to the next level.”
Devon Aire parents, too, want Crew and the board to look at the issue again.
“I don´t think you could find a parent that doesn´t love the man,” one parent, Susan McCallion, said. “He and his administrative team call our homes every night. You really feel like the school is part of your family.”
Feldman is in his final year in DROP, the state´s Deferred Retirement Option Program, which lets educators retire without terminating their employment for up to five years while their retirement benefits accumulate.
In years past, the Miami-Dade school system has rehired some teachers and administrators even after they completed the DROP program, at the salary they earned at the end of their careers. The practice came under fire earlier this year: Some critics called it a drain on the system, while others perceived cronyism in that only teachers and administrators favored by the district were asked to stay on.
School Board member Ana Rivas Logan, a former assistant principal, said she supported rehiring retired educators, but only if those employees were brought back at a beginning salary.
Last spring, Regional Superintendent Janet Hupp offered to extend Feldman´s contract through 2008-09, he said. He began the paperwork, and Crew signed some of it, Feldman said.
Feldman learned the offer had been rescinded in February.
Feldman fell victim to a budget decision to limit DROP returnees to a handful of principals and teachers in high-need schools or departments, because the district is facing up to a $75 million cut from state legislators.
Ending the rehiring of DROP retirees could save the district $13.9 million, district officials said.
Spokesman John Schuster said the district can´t afford to rehire even the DROP participants they had already started negotiating with.
“When we realized the depth of the funding cuts that came this year, we did not continue with the paperwork for some of the people,” Schuster said.
Feldman, Devon Aire principal for five years, said he wanted to stay on until the school finished its expansion. Next year, the school, which currently has kindergarten through seventh grade, will add an eighth-grade class.
He made his offer earlier this month. Feldman said he has the means: His house and car are paid off, and his two adult daughters -- and his wife -- have jobs.
“For a year, I wouldn´t mind eating Saltines and riding my bike,” he said, laughing. “In all seriousness, I could do this for a year. It´s worth it to have that continuity with the community.”
Devon Aire parents were surprised but delighted.
“I did not ever think that somebody would be willing to do their job for free,” said parent Yvette Botton. “But he really believes in us and he believes in this project.”
The situation boiled over Monday at a budget workshop where School Board member Evelyn Greer implored fellow members of the board to consider Feldman´s offer.
“I think in the exercise of prudence, there aren´t a million people in the district who want to do this,” Greer said. “But for the people who are dedicated and have the means to do so, it will save the jobs of two other people, and that´s meaningful in some of our schools.”
DOWN THE LINE
But Board Chairman Agustín Barrera said that even if the district retained Feldman, it would need to budget a normal salary for the position.
“What if they decide that $1 isn´t enough and six months into it, they decide to leave?” Barrera asked. “You still have the budget the position for full a year.”
Board member Wilbert “Tee” Holloway asked what would happen if the district had to terminate a principal who had agreed to work for a dollar.
“Where is the money going to come from?” Holloway asked. “It´s a nice gesture, but we´ve got to manage this system.”
Board member Solomon Stinson, too, was skeptical.
“I´d have to look at a person real closely who wanted to work for $1,” Stinson said.
In the end, a majority of the board opposed rehiring most DROP teachers and principals, including Feldman.
But Devon Aire parents are still buzzing about Feldman´s offer. They´ve already launched an e-mail campaign, and are considering a petition. Some seventh-grade students wrote to Crew.
Feldman said he was “humbled and blessed” but urged parents not to make a big fuss, saying he feared backlash on Devon Aire´s assistant principals.
Still, most parents aren´t ready to give up.
Parent McCallion questioned whether the decision not to rehire DROP participants would even save the district money.
“You have to wonder if the people Crew would bring into these principal positions would be starting at base pay,” she said. “I doubt it.”
Maria Marling, a PTSA member and mother of a 6-year-old Devon Aire student, said she couldn´t understand why Crew wouldn´t rehire Feldman.
“It would bring us so much joy,” she said. “It´s priceless how much he brings to these kids and how he motivates them. I hope we don´t lose that.”
© 2008 Miami Herald Media Company