There's much more to an administrator's salary than just the bottom line. We go behind the numbers to reveal what really makes a desirable compensation package.
Plus, a superintendent wish list and some perks that you would never think to ask for
It was a classic comeback. Several years ago, Superintendent E. Wayne Harris of Roanoke City (Va.) School District says he was in a meeting "with this guy who just drives me crazy." As the head of a local advocacy group, the man had a tendency to say things like, "I demand an answer." And why did he deserve it? "I pay your salary," he would say.
Tired of watching the man grandstand, Harris decided to make a statement. "I reached in my pocket, gave him a dollar bill and said, 'Well, I'll give you your share back.' " He has yet to hear the man use that expression again.
"When you are on the public payroll, there's always some friction," says Rich Bagin, executive director of the National School Public Relations Association. "The general public has always had this notion that there are too many administrators and that some of them are paid too much." Of course, as any administrator knows, the public is not usually aware of the hours and responsibility built into the educational leader's role.
A love for children and a belief in education brings most administrators to their posts, despite the expansive scope of the job and political negatives. Yet, these negatives are a major reason for the superintendent shortage. The problem is as big this year as it was last year, and perhaps even greater, says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.
When good administrators can be choosy about selecting a district to call home, compensation becomes an especially important part of the equation. The school board in Portland, Ore., for example, recently made headlines as the four superintendent finalists walked away with a "thanks, but no thanks" reaction to the compensation package offered.
Yet, in tough economic times, as administrators are pressured to keep a lid on spending, they may be fielding questions on every budget line item-from arts and athletic programs to pay increases for staff, other administrators and even themselves. Here's the latest scoop on salary ups and downs, what's popping up in contract negotiations and other trends in administrator compensation.
Setting the Stage
That is the best way to describe superintendent compensation packages within the past 20 years or so, says Tom Glass, a professor in the department of leadership at the University of Memphis school of education, whose research interests include the superintendency.
Compensation is so difficult to track because superintendents themselves often don't know what they truly make beyond the base salary that gets reported in the news, Glass says. And, as insiders know, a full compensation package may very well double that base. Teacher and principal benefits, on the other hand, total only about one-quarter of their full compensation packages, Glass says.
Base salaries, at least, do follow some basic rules, according to Arlington, Va.-based Educational Research Service, which publishes an annual report on salaries and wages paid to public school personnel (see the charts throughout this story for highlights).
For instance, as district enrollment increases, and with it the number of staff being supervised, salaries of central-office administrators tend to increase. Likewise, salaries tend to be lowest in districts with smaller enrollments. While averages vary widely by district, educators in the Far West, Mideast, New England and Great Lakes regions tend to be paid the highest average salaries.
As common sense dictates, the wealthiest districts typically pay the most, Glass adds. Boards generally require superintendents to live within district boundaries, so the higher pay is based on housing and other costs of living.
For scheduled salaries and wages-those that may be negotiated and established for groups of employees-ERS reports that there are no hard and fast rules. One Wyoming district specifies that only up to five years of out-of-state administrator experience can be applied for determining placement on the salary schedule. The schedule in one California district includes anniversary increments for principals, vice principals and certain central-office administrators. These pay increments are added to the scheduled salaries when an employee works in the district for more than 13 years.
In large city, large county and affluent suburban districts, another trend has been cropping up in the past five years: pay-for-performance contracts. "Superintendents are designing contracts that look like a professional sports star might have designed 10 years ago. They are highly leveraged, and many of these contracts are specifically tied to the goals of the district," says William Bainbridge, president and CEO of SchoolMatch, a Columbus-based educational auditing, research and data firm. "Some [superintendents] have been extremely successful and have achieved salaries far beyond their wildest dreams," says Bainbridge, also a distinguished research professor at the University of Dayton.
Bainbridge has also seen these contracts for chief financial officers in districts. "We highly encourage performance contracts," he says, adding that they are especially common in states where schools can be placed on "emergency status." When top administrators can improve schools enough to remove them from that status, they may get a bonus. Performance contracts may also be tied to increasing graduation rates, decreasing dropout rates, bringing in funding and other goals.
Some districts are experimenting with performance contracts for building-level administrators, too. For example, Richardson (Texas) Independent School District has adopted a variation of a state-recommended appraisal system for principals and assistant principals that will emphasize student test scores. Patti Kieker, assistant superintendent of human resources, says the system will be used to evaluate central-office administrators in the future.
On the Front Burner
Pay for performance is one trend that may be on hold for now, however. "With the tightening economy, [these contracts are] not high on the list," Houston says. "When the money is fairly loose you talk about that kind of stuff." Today, they may be on school boards' "simply can't afford" list.
Other potential consequences of tough economic times:
- School boards may offer only a low increase. "The economy's just turned everything upside down this year," as boards discuss salary with superintendents, Houston says. Glass adds, "As long as we continue to be in an economic downturn, the actual dollar amounts [of base salaries reported to the state] will probably remain constant."
- A sought increase may be turned down outright. Recently a New Jersey superintendent, for example, reportedly sought a 10 percent raise, which the board refused to consider. Their reasons: a possible budget shortfall for this school year, as well as ongoing contract negotiations with the teachers' union about whether teacher raises were possible and whether jobs would be eliminated.
- Superintendents may refuse an increase or take a smaller one than offered. Houston says he has heard of a few people who have done this recently. "They're sort of symbolically taking a freeze," he says. Houston cautions, however, that consistently forgoing an increase may catch up to an administrator quickly. "My first year as a superintendent, I tried to be a good guy," he says. "And of course nobody remembered it after the first two months." In addition, Houston says he ended up with about 20 percent less overall during the course of his tenure with the district.
Wheeling and Dealing
To fill superintendent positions, Bainbridge says that more and more school boards are turning to search firms, which go out and find candidates who might not normally apply. Still, Glass says that these firms are used in relatively few districts, probably not more than 10 percent. State boards of education probably do about 20 percent of searches, for a total of about 30 percent being handled by someone outside of the district.
Which districts are turning to search firms for help? Former teacher and administrator Nancy R. Noeske, who is now president and managing principal of Milwaukee, Wisc.-based Proact Search, says that it's usually the middle- to large-sized districts. Her firm's clients also are those who aren't in a huge rush to hire, since a good search takes four to six months, she says.
Once a candidate is selected, search consultants can get involved with negotiations. As an independent third party, Noeske might have the knowledge to tell a candidate, "You're way off base here. They can't afford to give you that."
Besides offering this "reality check," Noeske may work with the board's attorney to come up with a compensation package that everyone agrees with. For districts that don't have an attorney, she may work with the board chair and put the contract together herself. Then it's simply reviewed by an attorney. Right now, Noeske is working on modifying a former superintendent's contract to add items that are important to the incoming superintendent.
To come up with base salary figures, school boards often rely on statewide salary studies, adjusting them to meet the district size and location, Glass adds.
Beyond base salary, Noeske says that superintendents moving to a new state first want to know if the retirement system has a reciprocity agreement. Also important to superintendents is that retirement contributions are paid by the board and that they can be fully vested within the term of the contract. Pagers, cell phones and Internet services are sometimes included in the contract, as well.
Noeske is also seeing a lot of contracts where the role and responsibilities of the board and the superintendent are spelled out, which can help avoid micromanaging by the board. This has become more common in the past two or three years, she says.
In addition, Noeske points out that termination agreements are growing in popularity. If the board decides to terminate the contract, an agreement might state the maximum amount of severance. If the superintendent leaves before the contract expires, he or she might have to pay back a set amount of money as a penalty.
Another clause that some districts are including is a restrictive covenant, where the superintendent agrees to not seek, retain or accept other offers of employment. "Boards really don't like surprises," Noeske says. "They don't want to find out [that their superintendent is leaving from] the newspaper." With AASA's estimate that superintendents tend to stay put just five to six years-and even less among urban superintendents-the thought that a district's leader is getting ready to jump ship is not an uncommon one.
Bagin says it's important for public officials to make all aspects of their contracts transparent to the public. While administrators may not want to tell the media in detail about every perk and its cost, providing a total "price tag" that includes base, retirement and other benefits may be a good idea, he says. Just how this is done should be up to the board, he adds.
When boards can't afford every price point within a contract, they may get creative to woo a candidate. Among the unique contract additions that Noeske has seen is a partnership with a local university to offer free tuition to the superintendent's child. Another university gave a superintendent an appointment so he could lead education academies through the school. Active community leaders have also pulled together to help the board convince a superintendent to sign on by offering additional compensation. For example, one local foundation put money into a special discretionary fund that the superintendent could use for innovative programs or student rewards.
One negotiation point that may not help administrators is the sentiment that the private sector could pay a lot more for someone with similar experience and education. Bagin says that if top administrators, especially those in the large county school systems, were in the business world, "they would be making two, three, four times what they're making now."
In the corporate world, the spread from lowest to highest paid might be from $20,000 for an entry-level employee to $300 million for a CEO, Glass says. In education, the superintendent might be making 10 times what teachers make, but the ratio is much smaller than in business.
Several years ago, SchoolMatch did a study that compared salaries in Columbus Public Schools to salaries at Ohio State University. More than 100 people at the university had higher salaries than the superintendent, Bainbridge says. "I don't understand why there's such a gap between the superintendent of school's salary and the hospital administrator or community college president in the same city." Even the head of the local United Way or Chamber of Commerce might make more than the head of schools, he adds.
"The whole system needs a really good overhaul," Bainbridge says. "We need to start looking at ... market-based pay." This applies not only to superintendents but to teachers and other administrators, as well. Technology directors, he says, typically make less money than secondary school principals, which "certainly doesn't reflect the marketplace." Demands for these professionals elsewhere are great.
One sign that technology directors may be getting more attention in the compensation arena: due to numerous requests, ERS now includes technology directors (defined as those responsible for developing, coordinating and maintaining computer-based technology for districts) in its annual salary survey.
Despite reforms that may be needed in the educational pay system, most administrators aren't ready to trade in their jobs. The majority of superintendents have spent more than half their superintendency careers in the same district, according to AASA. Still, it doesn't hurt to remind others occasionally that being an education leader means working hard for your money.
Melissa Ezarik, firstname.lastname@example.org, is features editor.