Given a strained economy with skyrocketing fuel prices and homeowner foreclosures that threaten property tax rolls, plus pressures to satisfy mandates for improved student achievement, district administrators must tighten belts, juggle priorities, and find creative solutions to situations that might challenge them as never before. Teachers are being laid off or not replaced, and enrichment programs are being cut.
But it's a labor of love as top administrators find their jobs fulfilling and worthy. They go to work committed to making the most of the resources they have even though they could earn more in the private sector.
The satisfactions of working in public education "far outweigh the challenges," says Michael Joseph, superintendent of the Crosby (Texas) Independent School District. "It's that you're there for the kids," affirms Ronald Blocker, superintendent of the Orange County (Fla.) Public Schools. "When a kid comes in and asks me what's a good book to read, that's why I get excited about my work," exclaims Marilyn Joyce, librarian in Brewer High School in the Brewer (Maine) School District.
The just released annual salary survey, Salaries and Wages Paid Professional and Support Personnel in Public Schools, 2007-08, published by Educational Research Service (ERS), a nonprofit organization, reveals that increases in 2007-2008 the mean of average salaries for superintendents as well as other top school managers, counselors and librarians, not including bonuses and other perks, were at least 5 percent over last year for superintendents and directors of instructional services, finances and technology. Increases over 10 years ago ranged between roughly 35 percent to 45 percent.
Administrators further down the scale, including counselors and librarians, received increases 3 to 3.7 percent higher in 2007-2008 than in 2006-2007 and about 26 percent higher than in 1997-1998.
This ERS survey reached 669 districts, which represents 1.1 million public school employees, including teachers, between October 2007 and February 2008. But the economic downturn did not affect this year's salaries because most salaries were negotiated before this year began, according to Nancy Protheroe, ERS's director of special research projects. But salaries are typically negotiated between superintendents and their boards of education, while some salary increases for administrators in general might be standard cost-of-living increases. The good news is that administrator salaries overall are staying slightly above inflation, with central office administrators' salaries and wages standing about 4.5 percent over last year's wages and salaries, compared to the Consumer Price Index of 2.8 percent over last year, Protheroe says.
Overall, average teacher and administrator salaries in the smallest districts, or where enrollment hovers between 300 and 2,499, did not increase as much as in bigger districts, which might mean that veteran teachers, who are getting paid more than rookie teachers, are moving on to bigger districts, Protheroe says. And it still remains a fact that the Southwest and Rocky Mountain regions have lower overall salaries than the Far West, New England and Mid-East regions.
As far as teacher salaries go, the minimum, entry-level teacher salary is increasing at a slightly faster rate than average salaries overall, which may be due to many districts' need to attract higher quality teachers, and so they bump up those salaries to get them, Protheroe says.
While the economy continues its downward spiral, with spiking fuel and food costs, Protheroe says she foresees a tough year for districts. "I think what is going to be tough for districts is with rising fuel costs. In the short term they won't buy as many textbooks and they will defer maintenance. Some districts are talking about going to a four-day week to save on heating and cooling ... and some districts might let some staff go," she says. Union representatives will push for higher raises due to the rising costs of living, but districts will push back, explaining they, too, have to deal with rising costs, she adds.
According to the ERS survey, the mean of average salaries for superintendents of schools this year is $148,387, up 5.1 percent over last year and 46.2 percent over 1997-1998. "It has improved over the last few years because it's market-driven. The shortage of superintendents drives compensation up a bit, and school boards are aware that to hold on to the ones they have, they have to compensate them better," says Paul Houston, former executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "It's always been sort of a lightning rod position. You're the one at the top of the system and you're pulled in all directions."
Besides limited funding, superintendents say a major stress of the job is the politics of dealing with multiple constituencies with often different agendas, including parents, their own school boards, and state legislators.
"It's more political now than I ever guessed it would be. I didn't anticipate being as involved as I am with policy change at the state level. It takes time away from my day-to-day responsibilities," says Matt Miller, superintendent of the Celina (Ohio) City Schools.
"There are too many political issues," adds Lanny Tibaldo, superintendent of the West De Pere (Wis.) School District. "We're overly mandated by our state and the federal government. They demand so much time, and in the 38 years I have been in education, I haven't seen many of these mandates work."
INSTRUCTIONAL AND CURRICULUM DIRECTORS
With a mean of average salaries of $99,748, up 5 percent from the year before, administrators responsible for instructional services say they face challenges underscored by federal and state mandates like No Child Left Behind and Adequate Yearly Progress standards.
NCLB forces instructional service directors to focus on the academic needs of every student and study student-by-student progress. "The problem is that the administrative burden (time and paperwork) that comes with it is beyond anything that is reasonable," says Laurie McCullough, director of instructional services in the Waynesboro (Va.) Public Schools and president of the Virginia affiliate of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Further, she says, "it seems at times that there's a gap between the teaching we are doing to satisfy the mandates and the teaching we are doing to prepare kids for their lives after school." She cites both blue- and white-collar employers who say "they don't need people who are carrying around a lot of facts in their brains. They need people who are flexible thinkers and know how to fi nd and evaluate information and use it to solve a problem."
Employers in her area who need people like that range from a Hershey candy manufacturing facility and Wal-Mart distribution center to the University of Virginia and James Madison University with their large numbers of office workers and managers, health care aides, and other types of positions, McCullough says.
Bhavna Sharma-Lewis, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the Addison (Ill.) School District, says her decisions are driven as well by the needs of her diverse student population, including the 56 percent of students who are English Language Learners. "So a lot of our curriculum decisions are based on what kind of vocabulary, what kind of support they need in order to succeed," she says.
That support, she adds, often includes "a lot of the social and emotional pieces" that students need because of their sometimes challenging home environments. It has become like character education, according to Sharma-Lewis. "The demands of our society require educators to focus on the 'whole' child in his or her development and learning and not just the academics of school," she says. "With many homes having two parents who work, and/or single parent families, the schools have to focus more on teaching and providing a foundation for social, emotional and behavior expectations and standards."
FINANCE AND BUSINESS OFFICERS
The ERS survey found that the mean of average salaries for district finance and business directors is $96,490, 5.2 percent above the 2006-2007 level and 42.5 percent higher than in 1997-1998. Administrators in these positions say tight district budgets underscore much of their work these days, which includes cutting programs and services. "The cuts are being made in things like music and art, where there may not be mandates. Elementary school kids who maybe were having music three times a week now might get it once a week," says John Musso, executive director of the Association of School Business Officers International.
The Mooresville (N.C.) Graded School District reduced the services of social workers, school psychologists and school nurses-"those types of things that don't have a direct impact on day-to-day classroom instruction," says Terry Haas, the district's executive director of business services. "We still provide those services but a little more sporadically or on an as-needed basis," he says.
The Leander (Texas) Independent School District saves $40,000 annually in copying costs by e-mailing information to parents (which many districts are using) instead of using paper, says Assistant Superintendent Ellen Skoviera. To save about $200,000 annually in air conditioning costs, the district has been on a summer schedule of four 10-hour days for five years.
Musso says more districts are soliciting outside funding from businesses and other organizations in their communities. In Mooresville, says Haas, Superintendent Mark Edwards "feels that's part of his job." Two local car dealerships provided funding to support renovating high school athletic fields.
In her district, adds Skoviera, a grassroots group of parents launched a foundation that seeks funding from businesses and awards grants to teachers who submit proposals for "interesting new things" to do in their classrooms. One supplemental reading grant last year funded purchasing programs that motivate elementary school students to read better and feel successful as readers. "I think they're going to step up fundraising this year," Skoviera says.
With a mean of average salaries of $86,085, 5.2 percent more than last year, according to the ERS salary survey, technology directors, like other administrators, are hard-pressed to find and apply the best uses of technology in their districts.
Deep federal funding cuts notwithstanding in the federal NCLB Title II, Part D Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) Program, academics continue to be the program's top priority, according to the 2008 "National Trend Report Highlights," published by the State Educational Technology Directors Association, founded in 2001.
However, new initiatives and new technologies are not being implemented "as readily as they were in the past 10 years," says Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the North American Council for Online Learning. "You see more dollars flowing into solutions that seem to be working, like online learning and online credit recovery, rather than into pilot programs or trying new technologies that may not be proven."
When the Cleburne County (Ala.) Schools need new hardware or software, "we don't order brand names and pay brand-name prices," reports Peggy Collum, the district's technology coordinator. "We try to standardize our equipment across the district. It's less expensive that way."
Another challenge for technology administrators is just keeping up with rapid changes in technology for educational uses. "I don't know how anybody keeps up with it. We try to keep an open mind about how technology fits into the education mission," says Themy Sparangis, chief technology director in the Los Angeles (Calif.) Unified School District.
Like other districts, LAUSD has a technology plan, but it is being rewritten now, Sparangis says, because it expires next year and also because "there are things we can't keep up with and do." He cites being unable to implement dedicated site-based technology support, like a full-time technology coordinator for each school, because of funding limitations. But "some things we have achieved well," he says, pointing to a growth in online learning and reducing the student-computer ratio with mobile computer labs.
With a mean of average salaries of $57,618, up 3 percent over last year and 24.8 percent higher than 10 years ago, according to the ERS survey, school guidance counselors say their responsibilities these days are broader than they used to be.
It used to be that counselors functioned principally to guide top students toward colleges and low-performing students toward better classroom achievement, paying little attention to the majority of students in the middle. Now "our role is to meet the needs of 100 percent of our kids-their academic, personal, social and career needs," says Tammi Mackeben, a counselor in the Socorro(Texas) Independent School District.
In addition to preparing students for "some kind of postsecondary training," she says she spends about a third of her time in classrooms talking to students about "responsibility, team-building, all those skills that corporate America says our students are lacking that keep them from moving up the career ladder."
Mark Kuranz, counselor at J.I. Case High School in the Racine (Wis.) Unified School District, says that a struggle for counselors is to demonstrate how their work connects with the bottom line- meaning improvement goals and mandates. One way to do that, he suggests, is by showing through surveys or tests how what students learn through classroom guidance lessons-for example, how to resolve conflict, how to compromise, how to ask for help-impacts academic achievement, attendance, graduation rates, student behavior and school safety.
"We have to demonstrate that we support the academic mission of the schools and that our work makes a difference for all kids, not just the college bound," says Kuranz, a former president of the American School Counselor Association.
LIBRARIANS AND MEDIA SPECIALISTS
At the next-to-lowest level of auxiliary professional personnel in the ERS salary survey, school librarians have a mean of average salaries of $56,933, a 3.7 percent increase over last year and 28.5 percent more than 10 years ago. But salaries aside, librarians are impassioned about their mission-to get children to read. "Print is still important, and we supplement it with MP3 files and audiobooks, but we still have to work hard to get students to read," says Sara Kelly Johns, president of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) and librarian at Lake Placid Middle-Senior High School in the Lake Placid (N.Y.) Central School District.
One way to do it, she says, is with "the time-honored skills of having the right books for the right students." Boys connect more with nonfi ction stories, including biographies, history, and scienceand sports-related topics, while girls are drawn to fi ction that they can read "for fun," Johns says. "We're focusing on recreational reading, getting kids to see that reading is a pleasure," adds Joyce from Brewer High School. She is also an AASL board member and regional director.
She and Johns agree that a challenge for librarians is balancing that with teaching students informational literacy. "We work with teachers to teach students how to use information to solve problems and make decisions," says Joyce.
They are concerned that as district leaders make budget cuts, library services might be vulnerable. "The most frustrating thing for library administrators is that money gets allocated to mandates and libraries are not part of mandates," says Johns. Still, she asserts, librarians are "a darned good investment because we play a lot of roles." A key role, says Joyce, is working with teachers-especially English teachers-"to motivate kids to want to read."
The passion for their jobs sometimes comes from student appreciation. Johns says that at the end of this past school year, she received notes from several children. One of them read: "Thank you for being a librarian. You are very helpful in many ways. ... You guys are very important to our school family." It was signed, "Your friend, Cassie K."
Alan Dessoff is a contributing writer for District Administration.