Los Angeles school won’t explain mysterious $782,000 payout to former superintendent, as auditors call for fraud investigation

Update: After this story was published, the district stated that the payout was only $391,036 — half of the amount listed on the file provided to us.

Scandal-plagued Montebello Unified School District made a nearly $800,000 payout to its former superintendent in 2017, documents show, but the district won’t explain why.

In response to a request for records documenting the wages paid to its employees for the 2017 year, Montebello Unified provided a report that indicated the school paid $782,073 to former superintendent Susanna Contreras Smith.

That amount would make Ms. Contreras Smith by far the highest paid K-12 employee statewide, according to a survey of nearly 700,000 employee pay records posted on TransparentCalifornia.com.

But even stranger than the size of the payment is the timing. A Los Angeles Times report states that Ms. Contreras Smith was fired in November 2016, and filed what would ultimately be a successful whistleblower lawsuit against the district in July 2017.

So why did the school make such a large payout to someone who was no longer on the payroll?

That’s not something the public has a right to know, according to school administrator and de facto public records officer Jose Suarez.

When Transparent California asked about the unusual payout, Mr. Suarez refused to provide any information, asserting that the “Public Records Act creates no duty to answer written or oral questions submitted by members of the public.”

Such hostility to transparency would be alarming under ordinary circumstances, says Transparent California Executive Director Robert Fellner. But given that the district faces numerous credible allegations of fraud from state auditors, Mr. Suarez’s conduct is particularly galling.

“Mr. Suarez seems unaware that the core duty of public officials is to be accountable and transparent to the public they ostensibly serve,” Fellner said.

“One would think that amidst calls for a criminal fraud investigation from state auditors, school officials would be doing all they can to assure the public that they have nothing to hide.”

In light of the wide-ranging misconduct and financial irregularities that have already been exposed, the district’s refusal to explain such an unusual payout is likely to cause residents to suspect the worst.

“Was this payment a failed attempt to dissuade Ms. Contreras Smith from exposing the corruption she witnessed firsthand,” Fellner continued, “or simply an extraordinarily lucrative severance package?”

“Taxpayers have a right to know why the school spent nearly $800,000 of their money on a single employee, and public officials who suggest otherwise are in the wrong line of work.”

Average compensation approaches $100,000

Transparent California now has 2017 pay data for nearly 700,000 K-12 employees from 436 separate school districts.

A survey of the statewide data reveals that the cost for the average full-time K-12 school employee’s compensation package hit an all-time high of $96,078 in 2017 — up 18 percent from 2012.

Within Los Angeles County, the $116,526 in pay and benefits received by the average Whittier Union High employee was the most of the 31 school districts surveyed.

The next four schools with the highest average compensation packages were:

  1. Valle Lindo Elementary: $113,446.
  2. Long Beach Unified: $110,740.
  3. Downey Unified: $109,398.
  4. Montebello Unified: $109,097.

To explore the complete datasets of any of the schools mentioned in this report, please click here.

Transparent California will be continually updating the site with new, 2017 data from the remaining school districts in the coming weeks. Be sure to follow our blog and Twitter accounts, or sign up for our mailing list, in order to receive the latest updates.

For more information, please contact Transparent California Executive Director Robert Fellner at 559-462-0122 or via email at Robert@TransparentCalifornia.com.

Transparent California is California’s largest and most comprehensive database of public sector compensation and is a project of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a nonpartisan, free-market think tank. The website is used by millions of Californians each year, including elected officials and lawmakers, government employees and their unions, government agencies themselves, university researchers, the media, and concerned citizens alike. Learn more at TransparentCalifornia.com.