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Board To Buy Out Superintendent's Contract

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The Palm Beach County, Fla., school board voted last week to buy out the contract of its beleaguered superintendent, C. Monica Uhlhorn.

Although the vote was scheduled quickly, many board members and other district leaders had been predicting that Ms. Uhlhorn was on her way out.

Teachers, administrators, and parents had mounted campaigns to demand that the superintendent be ousted, and the movement seemed to gain momentum in recent weeks as Ms. Uhlhorn's performance was scrutinized by both the local and national news media.

"Dr. Uhlhorn has just about burned all of her bridges," Joseph A. Orr, the executive director of the Palm Beach County School Administrators and District Staff Associations, said the day before the vote. "There is no way for her to go back from where she is right now. Her enemies are increasing by the day."

Ms. Uhlhorn did not attend last week's board meeting and was unavailable for comment.

In a recent interview, she disputed the commonly heard criticism that she had a top-down management style that hindered efforts to improve schools.

One board member, Gail Bjork, said last week before the vote that the superintendent had done nothing to merit the board action and "has been the fall guy for the board's inability to make sound business decisions."

Ms. Bjork conceded, however, that her opinion put her in the minority on the seven-member board. She was among the six board members who attended last week's meeting and voted unanimously to undertake negotiations to buy out Ms. Uhlhorn's contract next month, a year before it was due to expire.

The board's resolution on the buyout noted that the effectiveness of any superintendent is diminished by a lack of strong support and said that "it has become increasingly obvious that the board is unable or unwilling to provide such support" to Ms. Uhlhorn.

Series of Setbacks

Events over the past few months had convinced the board to rule out keeping Ms. Uhlhorn, who was hired in 1991 with a five-year contract and an annual salary of $125,000. Among the developments:

District officials announced this month that the school system was projected to have a $6 million deficit in its annual budget of about $1.4 billion by the end of the current fiscal year.

Ms. Uhlhorn is involved in a legal battle with three former district business administrators she fired after they alleged she had improperly handled district funds.

Also this month, Ms. Uhlhorn was criticized in a segment on "PrimeTime Live," an ABC television news show, dealing with wasteful spending by school districts. Even some of her detractors called the piece unfair, but it nonetheless drew more attention to the district's problems.

In March, the Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association took a vote of no confidence in Ms. Uhlhorn. The same month, a prominent Boston-based nonprofit group severed its relationship with the district, which it criticized as severely mismanaged and resistant to change. (See Education Week, 3/29/95.)

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