Ontario-Montclair school chief gets 22 weeks of leave a year, cashes it out to become state’s top paid

The superintendent of the Ontario-Montclair School District has become California’s highest paid K-12 administrator for three years in a row through a series of opaque perks, including one that allows him to cash out a generous complement of sick time that grew to 85 days this year and will continue to increase by five days every year going forward.

Superintendent James Hammond exchanged 110 days of leave — including 25 days of vacation — for $167,596 in extra pay in July. In 2020, he cashed out 100 of the 105 days he accrued to the tune of $152,360.

Hammond’s total compensation, including the value of his benefits, now routinely exceeds $600,000 a year, though his base salary is nearly half that.

Hammond will only have to show up for 232 days this year, but he will collect his daily rate of $1,523 for 355 days total. If he sticks around until 2024, his ever increasing amount of sick time will allow him to get paid for more days than there are in a calendar year.

The Ontario-Montclair School District in western San Bernardino County enrolls about 19,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade across 32 elementary and middle schools. The median household income in the area was $65,046 as of 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 2019, Hammond’s $561,748 salary was more than double the state average for superintendents of similarly sized school districts. Even when stacked up against the outliers, Hammond’s wages often surpasses the next highest paid school superintendent by at least $150,000, according to a comparison of Hammond’s pay against those reported to public pay databases.

James Q. Hammond is superintendent of the Ontario-Montclair School District.

Not a mistake

After seeing Hammond top its own list several years in a row, the nonprofit public pay database Transparent California reached out to the district to make sure there wasn’t a mistake.

Transparent California collects payroll records from nearly every public agency through the California Public Records Act and publishes the figures on its website.

A figure above half a million dollars isn’t out of the ordinary, but it is typically from one-off events, such as a longtime employee retiring or a settlement, said Todd Maddison, research director for the database.

For example, while Hammond was the highest regularly paid superintendent in 2018 and 2019, Montebello Unified’s former leader, Susanna Contreras Smith, actually made more in both years solely from settlement payouts.

In response to the inquiry, Ontario-Montclair verified the accuracy of Hammond’s pay, but declined to provide a note to the public explaining it, Maddison said.

“I have never seen anything like this,” Maddison said. “It was the amount of the ‘other pay’ that flagged him for us.”

Perks added $1.1 million to pay

Hammond had about six years of experience as a superintendent when Ontario-Montclair hired him in 2010 at an annual salary of $230,000. Since then, his base salary has steadily grown to $320,000.

At that base rate, Hammond would still be among the highest paid superintendents in the state and above the wages paid in neighboring school districts. But a series of seemingly innocuous perks built up through contract amendments over the years have given the superintendent the ability to nearly double his already high salary every year.

Over a five-year period, Hammond made about $3 million total, with about $1.14 million coming from extra pay. That total does not include the value of his medical and pension benefits.

Among Hammond’s generous perks over the years:

  • 85 days of sick leave and 25 vacation days that can be cashed out every year.
  • Up to $2,500 a month for a life insurance policy.
  • $134,714 in retirement-related contributions from the district in 2020.
  • Lifetime health benefits for him, his spouse and his children, with all premiums paid by the district. The state outlawed such perks the year after Hammond was grandfathered in.
  • $331,000 for a condominium he purchased in the district, including a $100,000 loan that was forgiven in 2018 without him making a single payment. He later sold the property financed by the district for $389,000.
  • Annual cost-of-living increases, or, if he waives such an increase, the percent raises given to any other employee groups that year.
  • A just-cause provision that would provide 12 months of severance pay for any termination unless he is fired for “major malfeasance.”
  • A guaranteed 10 additional paid days of work, worth roughly $15,000, for going beyond his 222 day work year.
  • Full reimbursement for Medicare tax contributions.

Hammond insists his contracts were fully vetted by the school board and its attorneys. Board President Elvia Rivas, who joined the board in 2010, agreed, and described Hammond’s high compensation as an incentive that has allowed the district to retain its superintendent for much longer than other districts.

Perks nearly double salary every year

The single largest contributor to Hammond’s pay boost every year is the perk that allows him to convert leave into cash.

A contract provision added in 2011 gives Hammond 30 days of sick leave plus an additional five days for every year of employment. The lack of a cap allowed the superintendent to accrue 85 days of sick leave this year alone. When combined with his additional 25 days of vacation, Hammond’s 110 days of annual leave is just shy of half his 222-day work year. A superintendent who works less than 190 days is considered part-time by state law, but the state doesn’t calculate sick leave against an employee’s work year, as it does with vacation.

By comparison, teachers in Ontario-Montclair get 10 days of sick leave each year and work 185 days. The average private sector employee — who works 260 days a year — receives even less, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A study by the national School Superintendents Association in 2018-19 found that the majority of superintendents in the country received 11 to 15 sick days.

The ever increasing hoard of sick leave became immensely more valuable through a contract amendment in 2015 that allows Hammond to cash out the annual accruals at the beginning of each school year.

In total, Ontario-Montclair has paid Hammond an extra $730,859 for 522 of the 665 days of leave he has accrued since July 2015. That leaves 143 days — more than six months of Hammond’s work year — that he either used or banked.

Hammond does not consider the money to be a bonus.

“My fringe benefit of sick leave allows me the flexibility to consider accruing unused sick leave, or cashing out, my annual allocation of sick leave,” he said in an email.

Under Hammond’s contract, if any legislation or case law removes his ability to “derive income from the unused sick leave,” then the board is required to negotiate in good faith to replace it with a similarly lucrative benefit.

Banked days can be cashed in later

There is incentive for Hammond to bank at least some of his leave. At the end of his employment, he can cash out any unused vacation time and up to two years of sick leave at what will likely be a higher daily pay rate. The California State Teachers Retirement System also converts any remaining unused sick leave above 12 days per year into additional service credits upon retirement.

“The accrual of sick leave is an opportunity to build up a bank of sick leave,” said Hammond, who began his career in Washington and continues to hold his teaching, principal and superintendent certificates there. “It also allows me to make up for lost time considering I started in the state system later than most.”

Hammond started his career in Ontario-Montclair with 145 days of leave transferred from his previous employer, but the district declined to disclose how many days he has stockpiled over the decade, saying that it would reveal personal, confidential and private information about his health, family relationships and other private life events.

District hasn’t reported wages properly

In an interview, Hammond said his pay is transparent. However, someone reviewing his contract would see only a description of his perks, but not how valuable most of them are. The Southern California News Group pieced together Hammond’s pay from more than a dozen documents and spreadsheets, and often the figures conflicted with those reported elsewhere.

If a parent looks at the district’s State Accountability Report Card, for example, they would see a $299,676 salary listed for the superintendent as of the most recent reporting for the 2018-19 school year. Yet, Hammond was paid $554,151 in 2018 and $561,748 in 2019, not including his medical and retirement benefits, according to figures provided through a public records act request.

Hammond pointed to figures available on Transparent California and the state controller’s public pay database as examples of the district’s transparency. The district is required by law to provide the figures to Transparent California, which requests them through the public records act.

The state controller’s database is voluntary for K-12 schools, according to a spokesperson. Ontario-Montclair had not provided records since 2017, until suddenly submitting a backlog in September, shortly after a reporter began requesting information about Hammond’s pay.

Pay rewards longevity, district says

In an email, school board president Rivas defended Hammond’s pay, and, specifically, his generous sick leave. The district’s other board members either did not respond to requests for comment or declined to answer specific questions about Hammond’s pay.

“It is a fringe benefit which is designed to provide security in the event of sickness and to incentivize both wellness and longevity,” Rivas said. The district separately paid Hammond about $20,000 extra in 2020 specifically for longevity.

Hammond is in his 11th year, whereas most superintendents rarely last longer than two or three years in districts of Ontario-Montclair’s size, Rivas said.

“Students and school systems genuinely suffer from superintendent turnover,” she said. “After finding the right leader for OMSD, the Board elected to structure Dr. Hammond’s compensation in a way that provided financial incentives for him to stay in OMSD and prevent the frequent turnover in the superintendent’s position that occurs in many urban school districts.”

The decision to incentivize longevity has brought “immeasurable value in our expanded services and programs for our deserving students, their parents/families, and staff,” she said.

In 2019, Hammond made about $209,000 more than the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest in the state with 464,000 students. Asked about the difference, Rivas said LAUSD’s struggle to keep a superintendent proved her point.

“Austin Beutner barely served three years, and he is the longest serving superintendent in recent LAUSD history. (John) Deasy, lasted less than three years, (David) Brewer less than two years,” she said. “LAUSD has struggled to achieve longevity of leadership in their superintendent position, which can create many challenges for a school district. It takes many years for a superintendent to learn their school system and even more so to bring positive change.”

Superintendent brought positive changes

Rivas credits Hammond’s leadership with increases to high school and college readiness, attendance rates, academic assessments and reductions in suspensions and expulsions.

In 2016, the district passed a $150 million bond measure, with 78% of voters in support, that is improving the district’s physical outlay and program offerings, Rivas added.

Hammond’s leadership has “consistently resulted in favorable outcomes for OMSD in very difficult financial times for all school districts,” she stated.

Hammond offered a similar list of his accomplishments. When students move on from eighth grade, he said, they are more prepared for college and future careers.

“Their future looks very different than it did a decade ago,” he said.

Test scores behind state averages

The district’s academic performance is considered about average for the state, according to a rating calculated by the nonprofit GreatSchools. Test results from the 2018-19 California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress showed scores rose from the prior year, but were still below the rest of California in English language arts, math and science. More recent results were not available because of delays in testing due to the pandemic.

In an interview, Traci Taylor, president of Ontario-Montclair Teachers Association, said while it’s true that other schools, particularly in more affluent areas, performed better, test scores do not give a full picture of the district’s successes.

“The tests are intimidating and they are not always aligned directly with the way content is taught,” she said. “Until the pandemic hit, I think our kids were becoming more engaged and getting excited about their learning.”

Budget deficits in six of 10 years

Ontario-Montclair suffers from steadily declining enrollment — like many public schools in California — and has lost 2,529 students since the 2010-11 school year. Hammond attributed the declining enrollment, which results in less money for the district, to lower birth rates and an aging population in the community.

Despite the overall decline, the district now receives more students through interdistrict transfers than it loses through such transfers, which “was not the case when I first arrived in the district,” Hammond said.

Audited financial reports showed six operating deficits over the past decade, with the largest deficit exceeding $8 million in 2018, a year in which Hammond was paid $554,000. An April 2021 letter from San Bernardino County Office of Education indicated the district is expected to have deficit spending of $14.7 million during the 2022-23 fiscal year.

Hammond said the projections are early and are likely to change. His staff is already working on potential spending cuts to offset any forecasted structural deficit, he said.

The district has largely avoided layoffs through natural attrition over the years and has received positive budget certifications from the county Office of Education, a stamp of approval that indicates the district is solvent and is expected to remain so for the next two years.

“It always shows there is going to be a deficit,” Taylor said of the district’s budgets. “The reserves seem to remain healthy and we find our way through. We have had to be careful, and, sometimes, you wish there was more money so it could be spent on things you know would help in your classroom, but we have to deal with the budget that we have.”

Taylor praised Hammond’s leadership over the years, particularly his handling of the pandemic. His pay, while high, is between him and the school board, she said.

By comparison, teachers in Ontario-Montclair are paid about $87,000 on average, roughly $3,000 more than the state average in 2019, but less than other comparable districts in the area. That year, Hammond made seven times more than the average teacher in his district and 2 1/2 times more than the next highest paid administrator.

Taylor described Hammond as a “good man” who has worked well with the unions during his tenure.

“The district has gone through some hard times since he’s been here, and he has been a steady guiding force,” she said. “There were districts that were cutting days and districts that were making deals with the unions to cut salaries. That didn’t happen here.”

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