Public scrutiny of administrator compensation is intensifying
Individual and district reactions to that pressure are varied
With every action there clearly comes a reaction
Pedro Garcia wants to be sure his school district is getting its money's worth. So the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools' leader, whose current salary is about $196,000, has come up with a plan to prove he means business. Either test scores improve significantly under his leadership, or his job becomes somebody else's job.
In a recent letter to the school board, Garcia requested that his contract not be extended an additional year, as per usual, after his August evaluation. Any extension should come only when "the majority of the board has seen the significant increase in student achievement scores for which I was hired to deliver," he wrote. His
current contract ends in June 2007.
Garcia has reason to be confident, as well as reason to think his days may be numbered. A year after his 2001 hire, data showed significant achievement increases. The next year's scores were flat, and as of press time the district was expecting to hear bad news about scores for the 2003-2004 school year (which Garcia attributes to much longer state tests that he says are being modified).
The reason behind Garcia's unique stance is simple--accountability. "We have our principals' feet to the fire, demanding accountability. If they're going to be accountable, I've got to be accountable, too," he says.
As for the argument that superintendent strength doesn't apply to test score lifting, this leader isn't buying it. "I believe a superintendent's [role in achievement] is huge. You set the vision for the district, you set the vision for the schools, you hold the schools accountable and you hire the principals," he explains. "Their success is my success."
Reactions to Garcia's put-himself-on-the-line approach have run the gamut. There was the community member who Garcia says wrongly called it a "brilliant strategic move." Then there are those who have simply called it a mistake. Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, says it's not a good idea for one to put all his "begs in one ask-it."
While Nashville's board is examining whether data correlates with their leader's worth, scrutiny of a more public sort is happening in communities nationwide. The attention is on just how much money is being spent on top administrator compensation. From taking a defensive stance to making offensive cuts, what can and should districts and administrators do about it?
"As superintendent salaries have gone into six figures in a lot of districts, [there's been] really increased public awareness [and] raised political and public eyebrows," says Thomas Glass, a professor of leadership at University of Memphis' college of education.
The salaries alone can cause community outcry. "Any cost factor has kind of been magnified," says Ben Schwarm of the Illinois Association of School Boards, who explains that the majority of his state's districts are in deficit spending right now. A state pension code provision allows teachers and administrators to receive up to 20 percent salary increases in each of their last two years before retirement. When a superintendent uses that provision, the bump becomes a mountain against the educational plain. Despite the tough economic times, Illinois superintendents are generally being fairly compensated, notes Schwarm, who is associate executive director for advocacy/governmental relations at IASB.
These days it's the extras that are being viewed as extravagance to the extreme. From pension boosts and six-figure severance packages to "very healthy professional development allowances that they can use, not use, cash in," says Glass, these perks encompass a "secret gray area."
Is it a district's duty to let the public in on that secret? Minnesota State Auditor Patricia Anderson certainly believes so. "I think the general consensus of the public is, pay them what you think you have to pay them, but be honest and up front about that," says Anderson, whose office did a study last year, at the request of legislators, on superintendent contracts across the state. The district costs of superintendents cashing out unused vacation and sick pay make these contract points particularly reprehensible to the public.
"The ironic thing," Anderson adds, is that "many boards call when they're negotiating new contracts. Their concern is how to keep compensation down. We argued, make it transparent. Be honest about it."
When Minneapolis hired Thandiwe Peebles, a former top administrator in Cleveland under Barbara Byrd-Bennett, this summer, Anderson was asked to review the details to determine the actual overall compensation. She reported that the contract, with its $163,500 per year salary for three years, would actually cost the district $215,602 in the first year, or $52,000 more than the base. According to a district fact sheet, which spokeswoman Melissa Winter says has been created for previous superintendents as well, the total cost of fringe benefits is 24 percent of base salary (less than $40,000), with one-time costs such as moving expenses removed from the equation.
Besides total compensation, Anderson's office examined the legalities of Peebles' contract, reporting two minor problems to the press. Based on Minnesota law, she determined the superintendent could not legally get both a monthly auto allowance and mileage costs, as well as that the district could not pay for her civic group dues. "Her attorney admitted we were correct on that," Anderson says, and the fact sheet reflects that the contract was revised accordingly.
Even when a district offers a complete compensation picture, the public may be made privy to something that doesn't quite sit right. Take, for instance, the news about the consulting activities of Superintendent Yvonne Katz, published soon before her recently announced retirement from Spring Branch Independent School District in Houston. Her five-year contract's compensation was reported as $250,000 per year. That was her total package, with no annuity, housing allowance, car allowance or other "add-on's," says district spokesman Bob Sharp.
Yet the local media noticed that Katz is a paid marketing consultant for Energy Education Inc., a company Spring Branch started contracting with after Katz, who previously led Beaverton (Ore.) School District, arrived. Katz defended herself by saying she didn't earn fees when the district contracted with the company, which helps school systems save money through energy conservation.
"You have to be careful with that stuff. You've got to be very cautious about not only doing the wrong thing but appearing like you're doing the wrong thing," Houston says. As ethical issues have surfaced nationally in the last few years, school systems are inevitably being scrutinized as much other organizations.
Similarly, salary scrutiny isn't just about the top leader in K-12 systems. Missouri State Auditor Claire McCaskill recently released a report on St. Louis Public Schools that attacked, among other areas, the salaries of top administrators. Given the district's $38.6 million deficit as of June 30, 2004 (which was after expenditures had already been reduced by $41.4 million), the auditing team concluded the salaries of the top three administrators "do not appear reasonable." The chief operations officer's $200,000 salary, for example, is 75 percent higher than what the report used as a peer district average. The district's response: Its COO and chief financial officer salaries were arrived at using competitive data from the broader public sector and current data from other districts.
Floyd Crues, then the interim superintendent, was officially hired in July at a $220,000 base salary, with the opportunity to earn $42,000 more in bonuses ($7,000 for each of six goals). The base is 20 percent more than that of Cleveland Hammonds Jr., who retired as superintendent in June.
But the district's budget books got off easy. The school board had been courting Rudolph "Rudy" Crew.
Crew, a former New York City schools chief, started at the helm of Miami-Dade County Public Schools in July. His four-year contract, which will extend to six years if he's still there on his anniversary in 2006, boasts a $295,000 base to start, plus a bonus of $50,000 to $80,000 annually (an amount which goes up with each contract year). Some of the other sunny perks include a new car (with all related expenses) at least every two years and a home "loan" that will be completely paid for by outside donations (provided Crew stays in the district through 2008).
When all is said and done, this leader's first-year total compensation package could reportedly be worth nearly $480,000, and his sixth year could be worth up to $540,000. At this rate, will there soon be seven-figure compensation packages to WOW! about?
District of Columbia Public Schools was also looking for a leader in Crew. In fact, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams had said he would "jump off a building" for the educator. So Crew being a wanted man may well have contributed to his sweet deal.
When Crew pulled himself out of consideration in D.C., Clifford B. Janey left his job at Scholastic to take on the challenge of leading the district, which has been plagued by the mayor's battle to have the school chief report directly to him. Janey, who formerly led Rochester City Schools in New York, will earn $250,000 base salary, plus performance incentives of up to an additional 20 percent.
Like Crew, Portland's Vicki L. Phillips had donations working in her favor when she negotiated her three-year contract, which started in August. On top of her $198,000 base salary, the former Pennsylvania Secretary of Education is receiving $5,000 from the Portland Schools Foundation. Glass cautions that this may not be the best option for superintendents. "Local foundations can step in, and they can also step out," he says.
To put these numbers in perspective, the average superintendent salary was $188,988 in July 2003 among members of the Council of the Great City Schools, which includes Portland, D.C., Miami-Dade and St. Louis. According to Educational Research Service's 2003-2004 report on public school salaries, the average contract base salary for superintendents is $125,609. (See charts for more ERS data on superintendent salaries.)
Calling all critics
As knowledge about administrator salaries and total compensation has rung louder in the public's ears, education leaders have tried to raise awareness of how you've got to pay for good leadership. "It is not a waste of taxpayer money or spending frivolously," Schwarm from IASB points out.
"I think most superintendents are underpaid," says Glass. "The salary amount has to be fair to the superintendent, the benefit package has to be fair to the superintendent. But it also has to be fair to other district employees as much as possible, and to the public. It has to be an equitable arrangement."
Rosemarie Young, president of National Association of Elementary School Principals, adds that there typically aren't any "extra" top leaders. "Most districts think long and hard and they go through a process of analyzing positions to make sure they're still relevant and doing a job for the district," says Young, who is on leave from her principal position in Jefferson County (Ky.) Public Schools.
One potential response to administrator salary scrutiny would be to line up all staff compensation packages under the same magnifying glass. Glass' idea would be to require reporting the whole package breakdown for every position to the state. "If we're going to say how much the compensation package is for the superintendent, we would have to reveal that for teachers and [other] administrators," he argues. "When you get into the real affluent suburban districts, it can be interesting," considering the various health-care options and professional development opportunities that may be offered.
"I think that would be fair," Young says of the idea, while pointing out that there would be less to report for building-level administrators and teachers. In districts where principal packages are based on negotiated contracts, she says she believes both school boards and the public should have access to that information.
Self-imposed pay cuts and turning down pay raises are other ways to help restore public trust. "Dollars for underfunded programs have to come from somewhere," Young says.
For instance, the Houston Chronicle reported in June that administrator salaries are being named more and more by community and union groups as a way to close the $30-plus million budget deficit the city is facing this year. Five percent to 10 percent was cited as a fair amount. (The district's response was that most administrators had been held to 1 percent raises over the past three years, while teachers have gotten about 3 percent annual raises.)
Denver Public Schools' Jerry Wartgow is starting his fourth year in the district at the same $200,000 salary as when he came on board, since he has declined each of his annual approved pay raises. And when Metro Nashville had to cut $21 million from its budget, Garcia and the six members of his cabinet took a 3 percent salary cut while others in the district got small raises.
A less noble pay cut may appear when superintendents double-dip, or come out of retirement while still collecting a pension. "People are cutting deals with districts where they're actually taking lower salaries, but with retirement they're making more money. So they look like a hero to the school district," says Houston. That's his theory on why average salaries for superintendents have gone down a bit this year.
Alicia Williams, director of survey research for ERS, is also thinking retirement may be playing a role in the average salary decrease, although in a more straightforward way. As seasoned superintendents retire, new superintendents with less experience would likely be getting a lower base salary. The downed economy of the past few years may also be at work, Williams says. Looking at 10-year figures, she points out that the percentage increases tend to ebb and flow, although this is the only decrease of the decade.
A sweeter deal
Amidst the compensation scrutiny is a fact that school boards just can't ignore. There is still a superintendent shortage, meaning it's a seller's market in both new contract negotiation and contract re-negotiation. "Boards are making more of an effort if they really have a good superintendent to keep [him or her] and to relate that to their compensation," says Jerry Selletin, executive director of Nebraska Council of School Administrators.
So keeping the deal palatable, even in tough economic times, is viewed as crucial. Glass points out, "If the board says, 'We're going to give you the same amount that you got last year,' isn't that a de facto way of telling you, 'You haven't done a good job' "?
In last fall's Colorado Association of School Executives superintendent study, 46 percent of the state's K-12 leaders said improving compensation is a "very effective" retention tool. It was seen as the most effective tool, in fact, with "making pension/benefits more portable between states and districts" also scoring high.
One respondent drove the point home about the importance of boards rewarding top leaders. "In our district, they don't want to pay me, but I could move and make more money. I'd like to commit [to my district] and stay. There would be more stability in it for the district," he wrote.
Competitive pressures were at work in Minnesota in the mid-90's when the salary cap of 90 percent of the governor's salary for public employees was removed for superintendents. Now it's just these leaders and judges who can make more than that.
Glass says there's one reward that would really make today's superintendents enthusiastic--more administrative help in the central office. Lack of time is consistently named as one of the most difficult challenges for superintendents. "Believe me, [additional help] would be a strong motivation," he says, adding that he hasn't heard of anyone getting that reward directly.
Feeling valued, of course, is not something that has to relate to a budget line item. "In most cases, [superintendents are] not going to make what they think they're worth, and they're never going to make what they think the job entails," Houston says. So they look to be treated fairly. And they look inside themselves.
"If they can develop positive relations with the board and staff and community, it goes a long way toward their feelings of efficacy and sense of satisfaction on the job," says Jana Caldwell, director of communications at CASE.
Selletin adds, "I think there's still the attitude that 'I have a great opportunity. I'm very fortunate to have a job working with children, seeing them progress forward.' "
Melissa Ezarik is features editor.