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School chief's raise linked to budget OK 1% of hike in 2008 to be determined by whether voters pass spending plan

When Orchard Park residents vote on their school budget in 2008, there will be more riding on the outcome of the vote than new computers or class field trips.

If the budget passes that year, Superintendent Joan D. Thomas will get a raise -- 1 percent of her salary, or more than $1,500. That's in addition to a 3.5 percent raise that is not contingent on the budget vote.

Thomas' new contract, signed by the board president earlier this month, is believed to be the first in the region to offer a school superintendent a financial reward if residents approve the district's budget.

"My feeling is, it's very important for the superintendent to develop an educational plan with the Board of Education which includes the budget preparation and a budget the community can accept and move forward for the good of kids," Thomas said. "I think it's that important that it should be a part of my salary."

Board President William Thiel could not be reached to comment Monday.

Thomas, principal of Orchard Park Middle School for more than a decade, served as assistant superintendent for a few months before being appointed to the top job in May 2005. She replaced Paul J. Grekalski, who was forced out after less than a year after the board learned that calls were made to sex chat lines from his district cell phone.

The turbulence has quieted during Thomas' time as superintendent. The taxpayer advocacy groups have blended into the background, administrative vacancies have been filled, and board members are no longer exchanging obscenities.

Now, the district is poised for major changes. The board soon will appoint a group to redraw elementary school boundaries -- always an emotional issue for parents -- and voters will be asked to approve a major construction project that could include four additions at the high school.

District officials, including Thomas, are well aware that both the redistricting and the construction have the potential to stir the passions of various groups -- and they also know that Orchard Park can become polarized.

While a few districts in Erie and Niagara counties offer merit pay increases to their superintendents, none specifically ties the raises to the budget vote. Orchard Park appears to be the first.

"I think what [the board is] probably doing here in a subtle way is asking the superintendent to stay on top of a lot of those touchy issues and see whether or not she has the ability to pull a coalition of diverse interests in the Orchard Park school system together," said Vincent J. Coppola, a consultant who helps school districts across the state find superintendents.

Thomas' contract increases her current salary of $135,000 to $155,000 in 2007-08. For each of the next two years, she will get a 3.5 percent raise (regardless of the budget's passing), along with a possible 1 percent increase if the budget passes.

The district also increases its contribution toward the health insurance premium for Thomas and her husband to 95 percent, up from 85 percent. After she retires, the district will pay 70 to 85 percent of her and her husband's premiums for life, depending on when she retires.

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com

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