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Originally published April 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 2, 2008 at 11:29 AM

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Northshore administrators enjoy perks

Administrators in the cash-strapped district are able to buy gadgets for personal use — with public funds.

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Personal technology purchases

A provision in their contract allows top managers and supervisors in the Northshore School District to buy personal technology. Here's a sampling of the purchases and the range of costs:

HDTV monitors $1,438-$1,800

iPods and accessories $530-$858

Home-theater receivers $405-$600

Digital cameras and camcorders $217-$1,800

Digital picture frame $218

Source: Northshore School District

Administrators in the Northshore School District have bought big-screen TVs, camcorders, home-theater equipment and iPods for personal use, all with taxpayer money. What's more, if the employees leave the district, they get to keep the equipment.

There's nothing illegal about it. A contract provision makes the purchases part of the compensation package for about 90 top district administrators.

But with the district in the midst of a controversial proposal to cut $3.4 million from the 2008-09 budget, the purchase of $1,800 HDTVs, a $1,200 digital camera, GPS systems and even a $218 digital picture frame strikes some as questionable.

"To buy things for purely personal use out of taxpayer money, that's what outraged us," said Donna Lurie, who represents the Northshore Education Office Professionals Association, which represents support staff in the district.

The deal allows top managers and supervisors $1,800 over three years to purchase personal technology for home use and be reimbursed with district money. The purchases do not have to be job-related.

Other districts, including Seattle, Bellevue and Lake Washington, have agreements with their administrators associations that provide for the purchase of personal technology. But those districts limit purchases to job-related items and specify that the equipment belongs to the district.

The issue in Northshore was raised last week at a standing-room-only School Board hearing on the proposed budget cuts. Tim Brittell, president of the Northshore teachers union, asked how administrators could justify buying expensive electronics at the same time they were trying to cut costs.

"This is unacceptable, and this practice must stop now," Brittell told the board, which approves all labor contracts.

Brittell and Lurie said members had complained about administrators' use of the benefit and the union requested a copy of the reimbursement records from the district. The Seattle Times also requested a copy under the state's public-records law.

Northshore administrators, whose salaries average $103,000 per year, say they work long hours without extra pay and that principals in the district have received a similar benefit for many years. Saying it would help attract top candidates and keep salary packages competitive, the Northshore Non-Represented Administrative Personnel (NNRAP) negotiated with the district to add the personal-technology benefit, originally $1,500, to the contract that took effect in 2003.

"A lot of perks get bargained over the years. Nobody is lining up to give things back," said Jeff Sherwood, Northshore director of human resources.

School Board President Cathy Swanson said she was unaware of what had been purchased under the benefit until she was briefed by the teachers union last week. The benefit isn't unreasonable, she said, but the district needs to clarify the language to ensure that purchases are job-related.

"Does it look bad? Yes," she said.

The contract language defines eligible equipment as "computers, computer-related electronic devices, equipment computer-controlled or attached to home automation systems."

And it says the purchases shall be "for the employee's personal use which will add to the abilities, skills and job-related interests of the employee."

All but 13 of the eligible 93 administrators have taken advantage of the benefit under the current contract, which runs through June 2009, spending a total of $119,000 to date. Because the purchases are treated as salary, employees pay federal payroll taxes on them.

Dick Anastasi, the executive director of business services, and Laurie Ferwerda, executive director of human resources, both bought high-definition TVs with their allowances.

Anastasi said the monitor, for which he was reimbursed $1,800, can be hooked up to a computer and used for work.

"It's part of our compensation package," he said. "It was added to our contract as an incentive to keep employees current on technology."

Ferwerda, who received a $1,438 reimbursement for a TV monitor she purchased from Costco, said she has used it to read work materials including labor contracts.

"We could have been given a raise instead of this benefit, and perhaps, in hindsight, we should have been," she said.

Representatives of the district labor unions question whether there was adequate district oversight of the administrators' contract. Some of the administrators who negotiated the contract also benefited from the technology provision.

Several administrators said they viewed the benefit as part of their salary.

John Bond, an assistant superintendent for elementary education, bought an iPod at Costco and an adapter for his car at Bavarian Autosport for a total of $530. He also bought a digital camera for $1,268 at Best Buy.

Lydia Sellie, the finance director, spent $630 on a camcorder and an iPod Nano.

Asked if she had any qualms about spending $500 in public money for a digital camera, Accounting Director Holly Burlingame said, "no more than someone who bought a case of wine with their salary."

Some administrators used their personal-technology benefit just months before retiring or leaving the district, according to district records.

In the Bellevue School District, administrators are reimbursed up to $1,000 annually for personal technology, said Spencer Welch, human-resources director. But administrators must demonstrate a job-related use, and the purchases must be approved by a supervisor.

"I don't know of any television purchases," Welch said. Purchases remain the property of the district, except for computer hardware, which employees may keep for personal use after one year because it becomes obsolete, he said.

The Lake Washington School District has an approved list of technology purchases and negotiates prices with vendors to control expenses, said Shannon Parthemer, district spokeswoman. Approved items include digital cameras, camcorders, printers, fax machines, overhead projectors and document cameras. Computer monitors can also be purchased, but none on the approved list costs more than $309.

She said all personal-technology purchases must be compatible with the district's technology and remain the property of the district.

Some administrators in Seattle are part of the Principals Association of Seattle Schools, whose members receive $1,500 for technology purchases, training and travel over their three-year contract. The items remain district property, said David Tucker, district spokesman.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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