Just after the start of a fiscal year that would end with his school system's budget nearly $7 million in the hole, Gainesville school superintendent Steven Ballowe was given a three-year contract with a guarantee of payment of salary and all benefits for the remainder of the contract if he is dismissed without cause.
Ballowe can only be terminated for reasons contained in the Fair Dismissal Act of Georgia. Under that code section, educators can be terminated for acts including incompetency, insubordination, willful neglect of duties, immorality and "any other good and sufficient cause."
If Ballowe were to resign, the contract stipulates that he would have to reimburse the board for the service credit it purchases from the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia at a cost of $12,872.
The Times received a copy of Ballowe's signed contract Friday via a Georgia Open Records Act request.
The contract was approved on a 3-2 vote in July 2007 with board members David Syfan and Frank Harben voting against it. Syfan and Harben could not be reached for comment about Ballowe's contract on Friday.
At the time of the board's vote, Syfan was highly critical of the guarantee clause.
"A guaranteed contract, in effect, changes the dynamics of the system and has the effect of reducing the role and input of the board of education," he said at the time.
Ballowe's previous contract set the severance at either 1« times the remaining salary or a year's worth, whichever is less. In July 2007, Ballowe was making $170,331 a year. His current deal, which goes into effect July 1, has a base salary of $185,000 before benefits worth an additional $37,000. His three-year contract, without cost of living or other increases, would be worth $666,000.
Board member Kelvin Simmons, who made the motion to approve the controversial deal, said then that Ballowe had "a job to finish here."
Ballowe's compensation package puts him above leaders of similar-sized municipal school districts such as Marietta and Valdosta, and more than the superintendents of significantly larger systems such as Cherokee, Forsyth and Hall counties.
One of the big differences is in fringe benefits. Ballowe's contract provides him $7,200 a year for travel, plus reimbursement for travel expenses and mileage; family health insurance premiums valued at $7,280; and $10,000 contributed to a tax-sheltered annuity of his choice.
By contrast, Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield receives reimbursement for all travel expenses and mileage, $7,733.35 contributed to the teacher's retirement system and $2,365 to pay for health insurance premiums.
However, Frank Petruzielo, the Cherokee County superintendent, received a $7,200 car allowance, $24,000 in retirement system contributions, nearly $20,000 toward an annuity and $20,000 toward insurance premiums.
Ballowe came to Gainesville in July 2001 from Beaufort County, S.C., which includes the resort community of Hilton Head Island.
As Beaufort's deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction, Ballowe oversaw new instructional approaches at the middle schools, the development of "programs of choice" and the creation of the 2,000-student Hilton Head Elementary as four schools in one.
"He will bring attention to detail and vision for what things can be," said Beaufort's superintendent at the time, Herman Gaither, in a 2001 interview with The Times. "He can provide leadership to allow the transition from a sleepy Southern school district to a system dealing growth and change."
Ballowe brought many of his ideas to Gainesville schools, introducing the programs of choice concept in the city's elementary schools soon after his arrival in 2001. The concept has spread to the system's middle schools and Gainesville High School.
In addition, Gainesville has won national recognition, including from President Bush, for meeting and exceeding academic standards despite having a high-poverty, largely second-language population.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle helped push charter school legislation in 2007 by talking about the system's successes and the "Gainesville model" in trips across the state.
In the early 1990s, Beaufort County had a traditional system, with students getting a state curriculum-fed education and then passing through grades or failing and dropping out.
"I would say we had an underperforming school system," Gaither said. "The district kept doing things and not getting anything done."
Then, in the mid-1990s, the system began allowing schools to operate their own budgets, a concept known as "site-based management." Schools that didn't use all their allotted money didn't lose it at the end of the year; they could carry it to the next year.
"It created an entrepreneurial environment," he said.
But the school system still had its challenges.
SAT scores have been up and down for years. The composite verbal-math score has risen just to 971 in the 2000-01 school year from 961 in the 1997-98 school year.
In 2007, the Beaufort County Schools average composite score dropped 26 points to 939. Across South Carolina in 2007, the average composite store dropped 1 point to 984.