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Sharff’s pay boosted 17%; his critic may be removed

MANATEE — The board of the Early Learning Coalition of Manatee County voted Executive Director Paul Sharff a 17 percent pay raise Wednesday and began proceedings to remove his most vocal critic from its ranks.

Sharff’s raise — he will make $90,000 per year, up from $77,000 — was approved unanimously during a tense three-hour meeting attended by about 20 child-care provider representatives, some of whom complained about not having a “voice” on the board.

The Early Learning Coalition is a government-funded organization that oversees local school-readiness programs.

Also on Wednesday, board members voted 14-2 to put the removal of colleague Jennifer Radebach on the October meeting agenda.

Several board members described “hostility” between Radebach and Sharff at several meetings in the past year.

“I’m tired of coming to meetings feeling like I need armor,” said board member Annette Larkin.

Sharff asked Radebach to join the committee in July 2008, soon after he assumed leadership. During the meeting, Sharff reminded the board members of all they had accomplished since he took over an organization in disarray, then said “I have only one regret. ... I am at fault for selecting her (Radebach).”

Radebach and Janice Mee were the only board members who voted against the resolution.

Radebach, the founder of the Radebach School and former coalition service provider, offered board members a packet of e-mails from Sharff that she said showed “disrespect” and read a statement refuting possible causes for her dismissal.

“I ask questions, and he can’t get everything approved,” Radebach said after the meeting. “That’s all he ever wants to do. I really think he didn’t want me in on the conversations on his contract. ... I don’t know what the motive was. Obviously, there wasn’t cause.”

Four people stood up to support Radebach before the board, extolling her “integrity” and experience with child-care issues.

“She has very high expectations and demands you meet those expectations,” said Janet Hamstra, a former employee and former coalition board member.

Radebach declined to say whether she will resign her position on the board before the October meeting.

Sharff said the dispute came to a head Aug. 19, when Radebach objected to agenda items approved by the executive and finance committee after she was denied permission to speak about Sharff’s contract at that meeting. The objection required the agenda items to be brought before the full board.

“Nothing’s ever good enough,” Sharff said of Radebach. “If we have a provider agreement, there’s 51 changes. I don’t mind that. It’s just the negativity, and you can never be satisfied or be a team player.”

Said board Chairman Howard Veltz, “This is not constructive, taking up our time, our energies.”

Sharff, a well-connected local businessman who filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July, justified his $13,000 pay raise by pointing out that he does a job that was shared by three people before the coalition absorbed the local subsidized child care program from the Manatee Community Action Agency.

Sharff said those three positions earned $185,000 combined.

“I’m asking for $90,000 to do what the three people did before,” Sharff said after the meeting. “It’s in the budget, and it still saves us the half-million dollars to bring things in house.”

The contract also includes 100 percent health coverage for Sharff and his two children — a $12,000 benefit — and a three-month severance package should he be fired without cause. “I felt pretty good about it,” Veltz said of the contract. “I think we got a good deal. We’re saving approximately $95,000. ... I think that’s definitely a benefit to the coalition.”

Several child-care service providers spoke before the board in opposition to the appointment of Margaret “Missy” Eckenrod as the non-faith-based provider representative on the board.

When asked for their input during the selection process, the providers voted to support another candidate and assumed their vote would be ratified. But Sharff said the coalition by-laws allow the board to choose its own candidate.

“We have a right to decide on our representative,” said Geraldine Pasquarella, executive director of Children’s Academy of Southwest Florida. “We have to feel we’re collaborating.”

Eckenrod’s appointment was approved by the board, but Sharff and Veltz said the coalition will look at changing the by-laws to allow the providers’ vote to determine their representative in the future. “It sounds to me like the board is willing to change,” Sharff said. “Believe me, I want the providers to be involved. They’re the ones that take care of the kids. But also we want quality here.”

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