February 28, 2014

Kansas senator wants review of fired Gardner Edgerton superintendent

Sen. Pat Apple, a Louisburg Republican, wants to look into the process used to rehire Bill Gilhaus after his 2013 retirement. Apple said he wants to make sure the arrangement did not circumvent IRS rules.

The firing Thursday night of Gardner Edgerton Superintendent Bill Gilhaus has prompted a Kansas senator to seek a legislative review of the process used to rehire Gilhaus after his 2013 retirement.

Sen. Pat Apple, a Louisburg Republican, said he could not say whether that rehiring arrangement had anything to do with the school board’s 4-3 vote to terminate Gilhaus and two other top school district officials.

And school district officials are not commenting, calling the decision a “personnel matter.”

But Apple said he wants to make sure the arrangement did not circumvent Internal Revenue Service rules.

Apple, who represents Gardner and other parts of southern Johnson County, said he also wants to make sure recent changes in state pension rules aren’t being misused.

He said the easing of pension rules was meant to help state employers, such as hospitals and school districts, retain much-needed licensed workers, such as teachers and nurses.

Those same changes, however, appeared to be used in the rehiring of Gilhaus last year in an arrangement that saved the school district money and also appeared to help keep Gilhaus’ salary at well over $100,000.

According to published reports and state officials, the district accepted Gilhaus’ resignation last May and agreed at the same meeting to rehire him after 60 days, according to reports in The Gardner News. A copy of his contract showed at the time that he was making nearly $174,000.

His new post-retirement contract, which appears to assume he would be drawing a pension from the state public employee retirement fund, was for $117,723 over the following 10 months. The amount of his pension is not known.

His new contract was “based on the assumption” that Gilhaus would be exempt from outside earnings limits for retired state and local workers, according to The Gardner News.

The Kansas Legislature lifted those limits in 2009 to help schools and hospitals retain licensed workers in short supply, such as teachers and nurses, Apple said.

The change was meant to allow those workers to retire, draw a pension, then possibly return to the same job if they are needed after a 60-day waiting period.

However, IRS rules bar such arrangements if they are “prearranged,” said Kristen Basso, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System.

In Gilhaus’ case, the school board appears to have accepted his resignation and agreed to rehire him after the 60-day waiting period, all during the same May 6 meeting, according to reports in The Gardner News.

A similar arrangement was made at the time with another district employee, according to published reports.

Basso would not comment on the specific issues in the Gilhaus case.

Apple said the changes were clearly meant to address shortages of much-needed licensed workers, most of whom earn more modest salaries. They were not meant to ease the rehiring of higher-paid employees such as school superintendents, he said.

The arrangement also may have prevented other qualified candidates from seeking the Gardner Edgerton superintendent’s job after Gilhaus’ original retirement last year.

Apple said he would ask that a special Kansas Senate committee being set up to review those pension changes also review the school board issue “to make sure we are not circumventing IRS guidelines and ensure the state is meeting both the letter and intent of the law.”

He said he had heard of such arrangements recently in other districts.

In their Thursdsay night action, the school board fired Gilhaus, human resources head Lana Gerber and director of educational services Christy Ziegler.

In a short news release Friday, the board said it wanted to head in a “new direction” and had appointed Pam Stranathan, director of secondary education, as the interim superintendent.

The release said there would be no further comment “since this is a personnel issue.”

In a statement released to other media Friday, Gilhaus said “no means of due process and no cause of separation was provided” by the school board in his dismissal. He noted the action was taken two weeks after he received a favorable annual evaluation.

Much of the Thursday meeting was taken up with a discussion over the legality of the special meeting, according to Rep. Bill Sutton, a Gardner Republican who said he attended because his children go to school there.

Sutton said the 21/2-hour meeting was attended by 60 to 70 people and reaction appeared mixed to the board’s vote.

Sutton said the board’s attorney advised the board that the meeting might not be legal, “but I did not know the basis for him saying that.” He said the board announced the meeting two or three days ago and probably gave sufficient notice to the public.

In the end, said Sutton, “I am not overly worried about the state of the district. What I love about the district is the teachers, and that is not changing. But it is clear district leadership is a bit up in the air right now.”

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