Scott Travis

Scott Travis Reporter South Florida Sun-Sentinel

The Broward County School District gave 11 district administrators big raises last school year, drawing scrutiny from critics and a defense from Superintendent Robert Runcie.

The raises ranged from 7 percent to 21 percent, well above the 2.2 percent increases approved for most district employees. None of the 11 employees received promotions but continued to work in their same jobs. District officials said the raises were given to ensure employees received competitive pay so they would stay in the district.

The employees include:

— Jeff Moquin, chief of staff for Runcie, who received a 12 percent raise. His salary increased from $168,979 to $189,966.

— Mary Claire Mucenic, director of support services, who received a 13 percent raise, with her salary increasing from $88,340 to $100,000. Her department received scrutinybecause it oversees threat assessments, which are reviews into how dangerous a student might be. One such review had been conducted on Nikolas Cruz, the killer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland. Her raise was given on March 1, two weeks after the massacre that killed 17 people. However, Runcie said the pay reviews started months before the Stoneman Douglas tragedy.

— Susan Cantrick, director of applied learning, who received a 21 percent raise. She also received a 15 percent raise the previous school year after the salary range for her position was upgraded. Her salary increased from $72,102 two years ago to $82,829 last year to $100,000 this year.

— Mary Coker, director of procurement and warehousing services, who received a 9 percent raise. Her salary increased from $148,005 to $161,358, and is now $8,000 above the maximum pay allowed for her position. In response to questions from the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Runcie said Coker’s raise was improper and her salary would be lowered.

None of those employees could be reached for comment, despite attempts by phone and email.

The Sun Sentinel identified the raises by analyzing a list of district employee salaries, obtained through public records requests, from August 2017 and August 2018.

The school district said most of the increases were given to correct pay inequities. The School Board approved a policy in February 2017 “to better define pay programs and provide management with greater flexibility in addressing pay for staff,” said Tracy Clark, chief public information officer.

One exception is Coker’s increase. Her $161,000 salary is considerably higher than her counterpart in Miami-Dade County schools, who makes $120,000, and Palm Beach County schools, who makes $118,000.

The school district initially justified Coker’s raise by saying her schedule was changed so that she works eight hours a day instead of 7 ½ hours.

“The change in work schedule was intended to align the daily work hours with the operations that she supports and the staff that she is responsible for overseeing, the majority of whom are scheduled to work eight hours per day,” Clark said early this week.

That explanation baffled School Board member Robin Bartleman.

“Our employees in the district work so hard and they definitely work at least eight hours,” Bartleman said. “So I don’t know why her salary was adjusted. It makes no sense. It’s very troubling.”

Runcie said he didn’t know who approved Coker’s increase, but after the Sun Sentinel questioned him about it, he asked district officials to reduce Coker’s pay so it falls within the salary range for her job, which is $84,651 to $152,910.

“When you look at senior level management folks, they work 12, 14 or 16 hours a day, as well as weekends,” Runcie said. “We don’t think about whether you’re assigned to do 7 ½ hours or eight hours.”

Six of the 11 large pay increases during the past year were given after the Stoneman Douglas massacre, a time when district officials started complaining they didn’t have enough money for school police officers and teacher raises. However, Runcie said the review began months before the district knew it could be facing a tough budget year from the state Legislature.

The district decided in May to ask the public for a property tax increase to pay for teacher raises and to hire more security officers and mental health counselors. The measure passed Aug. 28, but the funding won’t be available until the 2019-20 school year.

The School Board received criticism in May from some, including victims of Parkland families, when it approved a raise and promotion for Mickey Pope, who oversees programs that help students with their social and emotional skills. Pope received a $21,000 raise, bringing her salary up to $170,000. Runcie said her job was upgraded to a higher level position at the advice of the U.S. Department of Education and a consultant “to deal with the aftermath of Stoneman Douglas and how we administer social workers, behavioral specialists and other resources.”

The criticism came because Pope oversaw the controversial PROMISE program, which provides alternatives to arrests for students who commit certain misdemeanors. The district gave conflicting stories about whether Cruz was part of the program, eventually saying he enrolled in the program but didn’t finish it for unknown reasons. The district blamed the confusion on poor record-keeping.

Mucenic, an administrator who works for Pope, received her raise two weeks after the tragedy.

Mucenic oversees the program reviewing possible threats by students such as Cruz. That program was discussed at a July meeting of the commission investigating the Stoneman Douglas massacre. An assessment was conducted after Cruz wrote “kill” in a notebook to see if he posed a threat to himself or others. Mucenic told the committee that 388 threat assessments were conducted during the past school year.

“We … have been one of the few districts that had such a thorough, laid-out plan for threat assessment,” Mucenic told the commission. “We’re happy that we’ve had this in place for a number of years.”

Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son, Alex, was killed in the massacre, blasted her response at the July meeting. “I would gauge your success based on how many children are in the cemetery right now. I would not call this a success.”

Reached Thursday, Schachter declined to comment.

Most Broward school employees got raises of 2.2 percent last year, with some teachers receiving up to 3.5 percent, depending on their tenure and performance. The large raises given to some district administrators angered Jim Silvernale, who represents maintenance workers for the Federation of Public Employees. He said the school district should have brought them to the School Board so there could be a public discussion.

“I have grave concerns about that. It becomes a morale killer,” said Silvernale, who is running for School Board. “It’s the same old story again. The top gets all the stuff while the bottom gets nothing but crumbs. How does this help our classrooms, who have been losing teachers left and right?”

This is the second year the district has given big raises to some district administrators. One of the district’s goals last year was to reduce pay disparities between men and women in senior leadership positions. That resulted in 14 percent pay increases in the spring of 2017 for Clark, the district’s public information officer; Leslie Brown, chief portfolio services officer; and Valerie Wanza, chief of school performance and accountability.

Lisa Maxwell, executive director of the Broward Principals and Assistants Association, said she supported the School Board’s decision to correct pay inequities, but she said the raises now seem to be given arbitrarily. She said the district used to have a cap that limited raises to 10 percent, even when someone received a promotion. That resulted in the district hiring people from the outside at salaries far higher than those who have been in the district for years, she said.

“That was the purpose of the change,” Maxwell said. It wasn’t to give raises “without oversight,” she said.

Runcie denies that assertion, saying district policy states how the raises must be given. They must be requested by an employee’s supervisor and the justification must be clearly documented. He said the compensation department compares the salaries of people with similar positions in the district as well as the job market in general.

“It’s not some arbitrary thing the superintendent decides to do,” he said.