WALNUT CREEK -- A high school principal has accepted $40,000 in payments from his school's Parent Faculty Club to lead a Model United Nations program, spurring controversy about why the payments were made and whether they ought to be allowed.
Though the Model U.N. program has just a dozen regular student members, Northgate High School Principal John McMorris insists he's taken it "to a different level" in two years of leadership.
But the payments have angered teachers and others who are asking why a salaried administrator received such a large sum, and criticizing a seeming lack of openness in how McMorris was given the money.
The Mt. Diablo district superintendent is now considering a district policy restricting such payments.
In an interview, McMorris, whose annual salary is $108,602, acknowledged accepting $20,000 payments from the club in each of the last two years, under a contract between him and the Parent Faculty Club. McMorris, who also is the club's second vice president, said he recused himself from voting on the contract. Mary Phalon, the Parent Faculty Club's ¿president, said the contract is verbal, and not in writing.
District Superintendent Dr. Nellie Meyer, on the job since August, said she isn't asking McMorris to give the money back because he told her he'd gotten approval for the deal from her predecessor, Steven Lawrence. But she recently told McMorris he cannot collect any more such payments, and McMorris has agreed to that. Her office is working to determine whether other district principals have received similar payments, she said, and no others have been found so far.
The Northgate Parent Faculty Club is a registered nonprofit that's funded by donations from students' families, not by taxpayer money through the district.
Still, the payments to McMorris have rankled teachers and some parents at Northgate, according to Mt. Diablo teachers union President Guy Moore. He said every teacher he's spoken with about the payments has been "very upset."
"Parents graciously make their contributions to the PFC, and we don't want to do anything that makes parents feel distrustful of the system," Moore said.
Model United Nations is a debate-oriented club patterned after the real U.N., with students playing as delegates for various countries. Northgate's has 12 regular members, with 20 to 30 more involved at some point during the year, McMorris said. They go to four conferences each school year, including a national conference in New York City.
A typical stipend for leading the Model U.N. program is $500 to $625 per school year, Moore said, adding that when he headed it for three years, he was paid a total of $1,500.
McMorris said he was on the Model U.N. national board of directors in the past and that he's taken Northgate's program "to a different level."
"It's labor intensive. It's a lot of work. There's a lot of reasons why they contracted me to do it," said McMorris, adding this will be his last year heading the program.
The expectation, Parent Faculty Club President Phalon said, is that Model U.N. will grow into an ongoing academic program, requiring more time and effort than a typical club.
McMorris said the payments had not been an issue until recently, when Moore complained about it at a recent school board meeting during which Mt. Diablo trustees approved a Northgate Model U.N. trip to New York that was, according a staff report by the school district, paid for by parents.
According to another report, from a Northgate staff senate meeting, several teachers are asking for "an honest explanation" of the payments to McMorris. The faculty report alleges that the Parent Faculty Club paid the principal in a secretive manner, and says, "staff members also question how a board that accepts parent donations can pay a principal who is a salaried district employee, and how a principal can accept this money, if offered."
A club document dated Sept. 18, 2013, lists ¿$20,000 allocated to "Model U.N.," but makes no mention of McMorris.
Similarly, the minutes for an October meeting of the Parent Faculty Club show "questions arose about the MUN program and its $20,000 contribution from the PFC budget." The minutes make no mention of the money going to McMorris, but Moore said that came out at that meeting.
Phalon said her group was justified in listing the payments as going to Model U.N., not to McMorris, because the money was "to support the program," even though it went to McMorris without spending restrictions. Monica Fitzgerald, a former Parent Faculty Club president, said McMorris deserved the money but said the club should have better outlined how that money was spent.
"To be honest, I don't think we were transparent enough," said Fitzgerald.