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Wisely quietly retires

But he's still working as a consultant under contract until after Medford voters decide on a school bond in November

Concerned about possible impacts on a school bond campaign, the Medford School Board agreed three months ago not to make a public announcement that superintendent Steve Wisely had retired.

Like a number of public employees in Medford and throughout the state, Wisely has continued on the job under contract, collecting a &

36;114,000 annual salary since July 1, while also receiving retirement benefits through PERS (Public Employees Retirement System).

Board member Peggy Penland said Wisely requested the board not discuss his retirement until January because it could cloud the campaign for a &

36;79 million bond measure that would pay for a skills center for high school students, a middle school and upgrades to two high schools.

Tactically, we would have preferred to wait, said Penland.

The board, during a public meeting on June 25, accepted the retirements of both Wisely and his wife, Charlotte, who also remains on the district's payroll as an elementary school media specialist.

They join a total of 15 teachers and administrators working for the district who receive both their contracted salary and PERS benefits, a practice that has become standard among public employees throughout the state.

Penland defended the board's decision not to make a public announcement, saying Oregon school districts often don't disclose the retirement of administrators.

You often have situations with employees where you try and honor their requests, said Penland. We tried to honor his request and it didn't work out.

Wisely, who leads the eighth largest district in the state, said, The board and I decided we are going to deal with the replacement procedures in January. I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

The 63-year-old superintendent said he was asked to continue working with the district to promote the bond issue and to provide a seamless transition for his replacement.

We don't want the issue of whether Steve is retiring or not to be an issue in the bond, Wisely said.

Wisely, who will continue working under contract until June 30, 2003, said there was nothing secretive about the decision because it was done at a public meeting. It's in the minutes of that meeting, he said.

The board and Wisely agreed to put off the retirement announcement until January, when the district will begin the search for a new superintendent.

Wisely, who has made it known for years that he would retire in 2002, said he didn't think it appropriate to discuss how much he is receiving from PERS, nor how much his wife earns from the district.

However, he did say a teacher in the district at the top of the pay scale earns about &

36;50,000 a year.

He said hiring 15 people back under contract has saved the district &

36;162,000 in benefits paid annually to PERS. We saved three or four teaching positions (by using that money), he said.

Board member Tricia Prendergast said, It's relatively common knowledge that it's been in the works (the retirement). But it doesn't make a lot of sense to make a big public issue out of it.

Wisely also likes to do things in sequential, businesslike manner, she said, so he wanted to get the bond issue out of the way, announce his retirement and then search for a superintendent.

Prendergast, who said there was never an intentional effort to hide the retirement, said the decision not to make a public announcement came about partially because we (board members) know in our hearts what is best for the district is this bond issue.

It would have been confusing for voters, who don't know as much about what's going on in the district, to reconcile Wisley's retirement with the bond, she said.

A big announcement of retirement and then going out for a bond issue ' that could seem questionable, she said.

Board chairman Mike Moran said he didn't consider it important that Wisely had technically retired.

A person isn't gone until they're no longer employed with us, he said.

When the board accepted his retirement, Moran said Wisely didn't want to spend a lot of time talking about himself with the public rather than talking about the bond.

There were a lot of issues at the time about funding, personnel issues and worry about 'Let's get this bond campaign off the ground, he said.

Also, there was the concern that announcing his retirement would set him up as a lame-duck superintendent, reducing his effectiveness, said Moran.

Ozzie Rose, executive director of the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators, said, The lame-duck issue is a big issue in high-profile positions.

He likened it to public corporations, where executive directors often keep their intentions secret until the last minute.

When CEOs change, it's on very short notice, he said.

Rose said a looming school bond election would be a significant reason not to announce retirement.

You're not interested in diverting the attention elsewhere, Rose said. You don't want it with your employees, with your union, with your community.

David Crosley, spokesman for PERS, said Wisely and his wife, Charlotte retired and began drawing PERS benefits as of July 1, 2002.

Crosley would not disclose how much the benefits were unless that information could be shown to be in the public's interest.

Reach reporter JoNel Aleccia at 776-4465, or e-mail

Medford schools superintendent Steve Wisely, shown speaking to an Oak Grove Elementary School parent-teacher group Tuesday about a November bond issue, says he did not want his retirement announced before the election. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune Roy Musitelli