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D-11 refuses to release severance agreements

Parting pay

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Scott Lewis was put on paid leave just months after an exemplary review. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Scott Lewis was put on paid leave just months after an exemplary review.

Six months after Colorado Springs School District 11 gave one of its top officials an “exemplary” job performance rating, the district sent him packing — with severance pay, records show.

Scott Lewis, executive director of facilities, operations and transportation, also was given a raise in 2018, but was placed on paid administrative leave from Jan. 2 through Jan. 31.

The Jan. 9 school board agenda reports his departure as a resignation, effective Jan. 31, for “personal” reasons, but when the Independent asked for his resignation letter, the district said, “No such document exists.”

The district paid Lewis $15,477 for the one-month leave in January, as well as $3,119 for district benefits such as health insurance, under a severance agreement, according to data released by the district. But D-11 refuses to release or discuss the agreement itself.

D-11 public information officer Devra Ashby said in a statement that the Board of Education reviews personnel matters in closed executive sessions. “Severance pay for an exiting employee is determined on a case by case basis after a Human Resources review process, in consultation with the Superintendent,” she said, noting the district “refrains” from commenting on specific individuals.



Asked about that on Sept. 5, Board President Jim Mason called withholding the document “stupid” and promised to check into it. He later called the Indy, saying, “We’re going to straighten this out, so stand by for more information.”

Lewis says he left because his job was completed.

“From my perspective,” Lewis told the Indy in a Sept. 5 interview outside his rural El Paso County home, “I did a lot of heavy lifting for my boss [CFO Glenn Gustafson], who is a stellar supervisor. He hired me as a change agent. From my perspective, I completed what he wanted me to do. I don’t have anything to add.”

That work, he said, included staffing up to handle projects funded through a mill levy override approved by voters in November 2017.

Lewis joined the district on Aug. 13, 2015, and scored at least two pay raises during his tenure. That first school year, he was paid $103,969, in the 2016-17 school year, $108,617, and in 2017-18, $116,252. During the 2018-19 school year, he was paid $76,393, which includes the leave-time pay.



In his first job evaluation in June 2016, Gustafson ranked Lewis as “exemplary.” In June 2017, Lewis scored a rating of “effective — Meets expected performance.” In June 2018, he again was judged “exemplary.”

(In addition to Lewis, D-11 awarded severance pay to three teachers and a principal over the last year, totaling $86,337, according to data provided by the district, though it withheld the severance agreements.)

In response to the Indy’s Aug. 23 records request, D-11’s custodian of records Katherine Ritchie Rapp cited a portion of the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) she contends allows severance agreements to remain secret.

CORA “does not require we provide copies of severance agreements, only amount paid or benefit provided incident to termination of employment,” Ritchie Rapp, director of archives and records, wrote.

CORA allows certain information, such as addresses and phone numbers of public employees, to remain private, but allows the release of records that include “applications of past or current employees, employment agreements, any amount paid or benefit provided incident to termination of employment, performance ratings, final sabbatical reports... , or any compensation, including expense allowances and benefits, paid to employees by the state, its agencies, institutions, or political subdivisions.”

Under CORA, notes Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, all records made, maintained or kept by the school district for their use in the exercise of functions authorized by law are public records, absent a specific statutory exemption.

Among the records that must not be disclosed are “personnel files,” but the definition of personnel files in CORA specifically excludes “any amount paid or benefit provided incident to termination of employment,” he says. Hence, while CORA requires a records custodian to deny inspection of personnel files, the definition of personnel files excludes severance payments.

“So it’s saying the public is entitled to inspect those particular records,” Roberts says.

D-11’s stance on severance agreements stands in sharp contrast to that of other local agencies.

Consider:

• In March 2019, El Paso County released a waiver and release agreement with longtime former budget director and Deputy County Administrator Nicola Sapp, who was paid $150,628 upon her departure on March 19.

• In May 2018, Harrison School District 2 disclosed a severance agreement in which it agreed to pay former Superintendent Andre Spencer $250,000 to end his contract agreement.

• In early 2017, the city of Colorado Springs released the severance agreement for former Stormwater Manager Tim Mitros, who was paid $58,525 to retire effective Jan. 13, 2017.

• In March 2016, the city disclosed a severance agreement with former Fire Chief Christopher Riley in which the city agreed to pay him $80,000 to leave.

• In March 2016, the city released a severance agreement with former Police Commander Fletcher Howard, who was paid $59,308 in severance pay and promised a retirement ceremony on Feb. 16, 2016.

• In November 2013 and January 2014, the city agreed to pay a total of $139,138 to departing city attorney Chris Melcher in severance pay, consulting fees and outside legal fees paid to negotiate Melcher’s agreement.

It’s worth noting the city stated in at least two of those agreements: “All parties acknowledge the City is subject to the Colorado Open Records Act (“CORA”).”

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