Northgate PFC defends payments to principal

By John Jackson on February 24, 2014

McMorris_for websiteParents at Northgate High School are throwing their support behind a popular administrator embroiled in a financial controversy because of payments made to him by the school’s Parent Faculty Club.

The Northgate PFC paid Principal John McMorris $40,000 over two years to strengthen Northgate’s Model United Nation’s program, which totaled about 15-20 students but which McMorris said he wanted to grow. Some teachers, parents and community members decried the move, claiming it was an excessive amount of money on top of McMorris’ $108,602 salary.

But members of the PFC at their February meeting last week voiced their support for McMorris, and the program he oversees.

Much of the frustration is directed at the PFC itself, which did not formally enter a contract with McMorris over the expenditure, and did not offer the payment to any teacher. The agreement was a verbal one, with no official written contract, and did not appear as a line-item expense in the budget.

McMorris has said he received approval for the $20,000 payments in 2012-13 and this year from former Mt. Diablo Unified School District superintendent Stephen Lawrence. New MDUSD Superintendent Nellie Meyers has said that she would change the policy regarding whether principals can accept extra funds on top of their salary.

According to the Contra Costa Times, usual stipends to oversee Model U.N. programs at other high schools are around $1,000, but the Northgate PFC stresses that McMorris is helping align the program with curriculum goals that will benefit all students. This focus included making improvements in the areas of literacy, research and writing skills.

Payments not rare

The payments from Northgate’s PFC are privately funded by parents and other donors, according to Monica Fitzgerald, who spent four years as the president of the parent club. Fitzgerald strongly defends the payments, pointing out that the PFC often funds ”course releases,” programs with high academic potential similar to the MUN, and that stipends of this size are nothing new. She cited spending for the Arts & Engineering Program, the Focus on Learning Committee, and the Global Outlook Program at the school.

“There’s a lot of money going to teachers,” she says. “We pay course releases all the time in the range of $15,000 to $20,000.”

The annual budget of the club is about $450,000 and Fitzgerald believes that these donations allow the school to provide offerings to the students that would otherwise not be available. “We live in a tremendous community and our parents put a tremendous amount of money in, which allow us to have (some amazing programs),” she says. “So I think if you look in context, what we’re doing with Mr. McMorris is in line with the vision that our community has of moving forward.”

However, Fitzgerald does understand that the amount of money given to McMorris may be a point of contention to many. “You know, there are people in our community who think we shouldn’t pay him that money, he’s a principal. I think that’s a great dialogue to have,” she adds. “If this brings in more people to participate in the process, that’s a good thing.”

The Model U.N. program is a simulation of the authentic U.N. in which students act as ambassadors, debaters and speechwriters in the context of the international format. This model has become popular in recent years nationwide, as more than 400,000 students currently participate in the movement from middle school through college level. McMorris was selected to lead the group, which only runs 15-20 students, because he is seen as an expert of sorts in the field. Before coming to Northgate, he taught a course offering at Brighton High School in Utah on the subject and since taking over, the MUN group at Northgate has placed third at the annual New York conference and has risen to number 25 in the west in MUN team rankings.

‘Mistakes and judgment errors’

The directing of PFC funds directly to McMorris has not sat well with some parents in the school community.

“I think it’s obvious that several mistakes and judgment errors were made,” says Karen Freed, a Northgate parent. “I was under the impression the money was for the MUN, not directly given to McMorris. The PFC is making changes to how future business is conducted. However, it makes me hesitant to donate. If I were a large donor, I would think twice about future contributions. Accountability is key and this crossed the line ethically and fiscally on so many levels.”

Freed was quick to voice her positive thoughts for McMorris as a principal in her time at the school, “I’ve had the highest regard for Principal McMorris over the past couple of years and have seen nothing but great leadership from him. He genuinely cares for Northgate and it is apparent.”

The positive results and the extra work put in by McMorris are the reason why Fitzgerald sees no reason why this course release, and the payment for it, is a problem. She added that the MUN program is not a regular club at the high school. “(A club) doesn’t require the same kind of time commitment,” she says. “We paid out this stipend as a curricular development. People at Northgate understand it, because they’ve seen the curriculum John’s developed and the work the students put in. We’re not getting a lot of complaints in our community, because internally people know what’s happening.”

Changes in PFC policy

Current PFC President Mary Phalon is frustrated that the firestorm has been stirred up now. The $20,000 annual stipend has been being paid for two years and she says that it was discussed in the PFC’s October meeting and that the group’s budget is handed out at each meeting. Referring to the fact that McMorris’ stipend is not listed as a line item in the budget, Phalon and Fitzgerald argue that it would be a tedious process to add every stipend and line item to budgets that are handed out at their meetings.

The controversy has spurred changes in how the PFC handles similar situations. In a letter to Northgate parents last week, Phalon stated that she is “committed to make procedural changes that will make our work and the funding we administer even more transparent.” She said she is committed to no longer entering into verbal contracts — all future contracts will be in writing. Also, all funding requests will go through a line item budget approval process.

Regardless, Phalon wants to use this experience as a chance to get more people involved in the process going forward. She says that although public involvement is always encouraged, attendance at the PFC meetings is low. “I would invite [parents] to come make these decisions. As a board, we want input, we want discussion. I actually invite discourse and discussion on everything.”

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