Perhaps the answer to why a highly paid college chancellor is on indefinite leave at taxpayer expense lies somewhere in the pages of his recent job evaluation.

But that’s a document the public can’t have, say officials at the Maricopa Community College District.

Fred Gaskin, hired by the district’s governing board in May 2000, walked out of a private meeting with the board on May 13 during a review of his performance evaluation. Since then, neither Gaskin nor any district officials have said a word about what has gone wrong.

The board met once since that day. At its meeting in Tempe on Tuesday, members voted unanimously to raise taxes in Maricopa County to help fund the colleges. It also approved an increase for the 2004 fiscal year operating budget, wh ich will rise from $379 million to $415 million.

But the board took no action on Gaskin. The agenda for the board’s meeting this Tuesday also contains no reference to the situation regarding the chancellor.

Attorneys representing Gaskin and the district are trying to hash things out, and the quarter-millionstudent, 10-college district is trying to move ahead, said Rufus Glasper, a vice chancellor filling in temporarily for the absent chief executive.

The district has remained steadfast in refusing media requests to release the pertinent documents under open records laws. "At this point we have nothing to share," Glasper said.

In the meantime, Gaskin continues to draw his $4,300-a-week paycheck on his taxpayer-funded leave. Gaskin is drawing on stored vacation and time benefits that will allow him to receive full benefits and pay until mid-October, district officials calculate. Under terms of a four-year contractsigned in May 2002 between Gaskin and the district, Gaskin continues to accrue 28 hours of vacation and sick time a month on his leave.

Depending on how the dispute between Gaskin and his employer is settled, the district could be forced to pay a significant amount to "buy out" the remainder of his contract.

Pete Kushibab, the district’s staff counsel, and Rick Cohen, an attorney with Lewis and Roca hired to advise Kushibab and the board, have a host of reasons for keeping the evaluation confidential.

Releasing the evaluation could compromise the privacy rights of Gaskin and other public employees who may be mentioned in the document, they said.

Also, if such evaluations were made public, the governing board members who evaluate the chancellor’s work-related actions might not be as candid, the attorneys said. And that could mean future searches for quality chancellor candidates might be hindered if the applicants knew their evaluations might be made public, they said.

As a legal basis for not releasing the evaluation, the district is relying on a personnel rule governing state employees that essentially sanctions the release only of an employee’s name, rank and other basic data. Yet no specific exemption exists under state public records’ law that would protect the evaluations from release, and the issue has yet to be challenged in court.

"There is no case squarely on point," Kushibab said.

The evaluations of university presidents in Arizona are kept confidential, according to a policy adopted by the Arizona Board of Regents. However, the community college district has never officially adopted a similar rule into its own codes.

Other government entities, including some cities, do release such documents concerning employees ranging from police officers to city managers.

"We have always released performance evaluations," said Heidi Gast, a spokeswoman for Mesa. "We consider those to be public record."

Governing board members did not return calls from the Tribune. One member reached by telephone on Friday, Linda Rosenthal of Phoenix, said she could not comment about Gaskin. Asked whether the public has a right to know what is going on with the chancellor, Rosenthal said, "Our executive sessions are privileged information."

Any written portion of the evaluation would therefore also be confidential, she said.

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