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A school board's new rule: Tell off the boss, get a raise

By JEFF WEBB
Published December 21, 2003

Being the season of generous giving, try this when you get to work Monday:

Complain to your boss you're upset with some of the things he and others have said about you lately.

Tell him next time he should check with you before he opens his mouth.

Tell him his actions lack professional courtesy.

And then ask him for a raise - a big one, say, three times more than most of your co-workers will receive.

I'm not sure how that scenario would play out at your business, but I can almost guarantee it would mean I'd be in one of two places in the very near future: the unemployment line or the nearest mental health facility.

That's because in the real world, telling off the boss is unacceptable unless, of course, you're prepared to take a very long walk.

But in the increasingly surreal world of the Hernando County School Board, you can get away with it.

Just ask Wendy Tellone.

At a workshop meeting of the board last week, the superintendent scolded her bosses for answering reporters' questions - and (gasp!) expressing their opinions - about her request for a salary increase of almost 10 percent. More specifically, Tellone was upset that board members made their comments several days before she had the opportunity to verbally present her appeal for more pay.

Reading pointedly from a prepared statement, Tellone did not limit her lecture to her bosses on the School Board. First, she lashed out against newspaper reporters and editors, suggesting information was deliberately omitted from a Times news story, painting a negative picture of her raise request. (Because I write for the opinion page, it's not my job to defend how the news is reported; but, for what it's worth, I believe the story was both accurate and fair.)

Tellone then accused yours truly of authoring an editorial that tried "to turn my own school system family against me" and "attempted to influence the public."

I'll plead guilty to influencing public opinion. That's what we do on the opinion pages. We analyze and interpret the news and offer informed opinions that are intended to stimulate thought. Influencing readers' opinions about topics of public interest - like how their taxes are being spent and how their public servants are performing, for example - is a necessary byproduct of that process.

But did I try to turn Tellone's employees against her? Nope, she doesn't need my help with that.

The editorial asserted that Tellone used bad judgment when she asked for a 9.9 percent pay increase so soon after the School Board had agreed to give other district employees average increases of 3.5 percent. It contended the request was excessive and sent a negative message to employees who must make do with much less.

The editorial also suggested that the timing of Tellone's request could cause voters, who will be asked to approve a half-cent increase in the sales tax in March, to wonder just how badly the district needs their money.

No salaries are paid from sales tax revenue, which is used to build new schools, and Tellone was quick to point that out during her tirade last week. People like me who have an obligation to follow the money know that, too.

But most taxpayers don't know - or care - about those differences. That is unfortunate, but it is a reality. And if Tellone - or any board members, for that matter - believes the public will mentally place that money into separate piles as they are being asked to tax themselves, she's in for a rude awakening.

But I digress. This commentary is not meant to further speculation about how the public will perceive the tax referendum. Hernando County needs more schools, and they will be built, either with money that comes from a sales tax or from borrowing. Voters will decide how it's done. Nor do I intend to belabor the amount of Tellone's pay increase, because board members eventually agreed on a 3.5 percent increase for Tellone, proving that they, too, thought the request was too high.

The point is that Tellone, by urging the board to assist her in thwarting the press' efforts to shine light on subjects of public interest, asked too much in more ways than one.

Tellone's thin-skinned rant exhibited a level of temerity that borders on insolence, and raises the question: Who's running the show?

A superintendent admonishing the press is nothing new. But a subordinate who publicly censures her bosses and gets away with it and a big raise? That's a story people will remember.

[Last modified December 21, 2003, 01:16:22]


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