This is a very good time to be looking for a job as a school superintendent. The demand for qualified applicants is high and the supply is low, so if you are an experienced superintendent with a good track record, you can expect some very attractive offers if you enter the job market.
Of course, the reason for this favorable supply-and-demand equation is that this is a particularly challenging time to be a school superintendent. You're under constant scrutiny, you're expected to be accessible 24/7 and you'll probably have to look for a new job-and relocate-in five to six years. ?
If you're a senior central office administrator-a deputy or assistant superintendent-your situation is more stable. You're probably earning 80 percent to 90 percent of what your boss makes, but your job is a lot safer. If you're in your 50s, you can look forward to an attractive pension, or you could cap off your career by applying for one of those many open superintendent jobs.
Whether you're job hunting or not, it's always valuable to see how you're salary stacks up against the national averages. According to the Educational Research Service, a nonprofit organization in Alexandria, Va., the national average salary for superintendents is just over $134,000, up about 43 percent from a decade ago. Average salaries for central office managers range from about $72,000 for subject area supervisors to $122,000 for deputy superintendents, according to ERS.
The charts and tables that accompany this article tell more of the story. But to get an inside look at what's really happening with district-level compensation trends, we assembled a panel of experts and asked them for their insight. Our panelists include current and retired superintendents, K-12 management recruiters and leaders at industry associations. They were interviewed separately; their comments have been aggregated here to create a virtual roundtable.
What's behind the ongoing rise in superintendent salaries?
Benjamin Canada: Salaries in the recent past have been undervalued, so it's natural for them to begin catching up to the responsibilities that the superintendent/CEO has been addressing for years. Plus, we are seeing a dwindling supply of qualified applicants for these jobs.
Joan Raymond: When I applied for the job in South Bend, they had 18 or 20 applications. I was shocked because at one point it would have been several times that. When I left, they had five applicants. The applicant pool today is so shallow that those superintendents who are successful and experienced can pretty much name their own price.
Charles Fowler: Over the last 10 to 15 years in the New York area we've seen a decrease of 70 percent in the number of people who express interest in a superintendent job. A district that advertised an attractive job in a nice community might have gotten 125 or 130 applications, more than half from existing superintendents. Today that number is 30 to 35, and over half the applicants are not superintendents-sometimes they're not even professional educators.
Why so few applicants?
Bruce Hunter: The age at which people become superintendents is rising. It used to be that people became superintendents in their late 30s and stayed in the position for 25 to 30 years. Now the typical age of becoming a superintendent is in the 50s. Educators stay in other careers until their kids are in college or their home is paid off. Then, if they're offered a superintendent's job with a three- to five-year contract they'll take it, because they have the time in to collect a pension and they're just putting a cherry on their career. Of course, if you take a superintendent job at 50 or 52, you're not going to stay more than six or eight years.
Charles Fowler: People who went into an educational leadership position with a strong desire to influence the nature of teaching and learning find that is not what they get to spend their time doing. They get to spend the vast majority of their time putting out political and financial fires, dealing with issues of school violence and school security, facility problems, voter rejection of budgets. The job has moved so far away from what happens in the classroom that it has decreased interest in the position.
Gary Ray: It can be very difficult to succeed in this job. You have to be able to establish a good working relationship with the board, with community members, the media.
Nationwide, the average superintendent salary is $134,000. Does that square with your feel for the market?
Charles Fowler: I know that in the New York area the minimum salary is never less than $200,000.
Joan Raymond: When I went to Houston in 1986-20 years ago-there was an article in USA Today that said I was the highest paid superintendent in the country, and I was earning $125,000. Today it's not unusual to hear about salaries well over $300,000 in big districts.
There are superstars in every field. Are the celebrity superintendents worth their pay?
Wilfredo Laboy: Superstars are made by the media, not by the results they get in their districts. Unfortunately, many of the superstars out there are people who have had no connection to education. They are created by their political connections and relationships. They are not necessarily instructional leaders; they have not necessarily labored for years in the industry. This notion of huge compensation packages for people who come from private industry and have not been warriors in public education is truly unfortunate. That's what repulses people about these large compensation packages. On the other hand, in some cases we don't compensate people enough. I think anyone would be willing to say if the person is good and has had a long career in this endeavor, and can really make it happen, then they should be compensated according to what they deserve.
What's happening at the level right below superintendents, the senior administrators in the central office?
Bruce Hunter: At the central office level, I've watched the competition to get strong people increase, and I expect in many districts their rewards are going up. But it is not happening at the same pace as superintendent salaries. They go up because of the risk versus reward phenomenon. The greater risk you assume, the greater reward you receive. People who don't face that kind of risk face a lower reward. In addition, the applicant pool is not diminishing for central office positions. There are a lot of people who like the job of dealing with instruction. They like the stability of those jobs, of being immune from board politics. There's a large cadre of people who really enjoy leadership in areas within the school system but who don't want to be superintendents, with all the pressures that the job faces.
Joan Raymond: Recruitment is not so much a problem in the central office. There are always people in the schools who want to move to the central office; there's not the kind of wheeling and dealing for second-line administrators.
Should a superintendent's salary be tied to test scores?
Wilfredo Laboy: Certainly that is not an unorthodox concept in America. We compensate chief executive officers of companies based on what dividends they gain every quarter for stockholders. Rightfully so. Every superintendent is well aware they are there to produce results. If they're getting results, why shouldn't they be compensated for it? We do it in every other part of American life. Why should it be so strange in public education?
Roy Rowe: There may be some merit to that, but you have to be careful. There are a lot of districts where they have done absolutely nothing and the scores are awful. If someone could come into that environment and bring an awful district to average, then the gain is great. If you go into a district that already is doing some good things, then the gain in test scores will come slowly. Also, sometimes just getting quick test score gains doesn't mean your schools have gotten that much better. A superintendent whose salary is tied to test scores may take steps appropriate to a short-term fix but not to a long-term fix.
Benjamin Canada: One of the cons is what happens with the other senior staff members who do not get a bonus, because the superintendent is not the only one involved in getting the test scores up.
Do retention bonuses work or do they just escalate the salary wars?
Gary Ray: They do work. They send a positive message to the superintendent from the board, that they want to maintain a long relationship. I think they're more appropriate for large urban and suburban districts than smaller rural districts. But if you get someone you want to keep, why not offer an incentive for them to stay out of the market? I've seen districts get pretty creative with these packages, offering to pay an amount into their superintendent's retirement package, or an annuity, or sometimes just a cash bonus. But you don't build these into the initial contract. The right time to do it is after a good relationship has been established between the superintendent and the board and community.
What's happening with perks-cell phones, cars, computers?
Benjamin Canada: They used to be given to the superintendent separate from base salary. Now we're seeing that boards are building an allowance for these items into the superintendent's annual salary. It's an open-access issue. For instance, if a board gives a superintendent a cell phone, then those cell phone records are open to the public. That raises privacy concerns. When we work with boards on compensation issues, we recommend that they set the base salary and then add a reasonable amount that will enable the superintendent to acquire a phone, a car, a PDA or whatever the board feels is necessary and appropriate.
Joan Raymond: Housing allowances are becoming more common. Contracts are becoming longer. Boards are becoming more aware of the fact that they have to treat their CEOs the same as Fortune 500 companies do. You're seeing annuities or extra vacation time, or promises to buy back unused vacation time.
Charles Fowler: Housing is a big issue, so boards are trying to address it. Looking at your typical suburban metro area, it is very hard to attract an applicant into a community where the average price of a home is $400,000 or $500,000. In many communities looking for a superintendent, there's no way an applicant from outside the region could afford an average home.
Who in K-12 administration deserves the biggest salary adjustment?
Roy Rowe: The high school principal. It's probably the most difficult position in the district. You've got so many balls in the air.
Bruce Hunter: No one puts in more time than a superintendent, but high school principals come close. They put in long, hard hours. They're dealing with high stakes academic issues and tough social issues. Plus, they've got to worry whether the football team is winning or if the kids misbehaved at the basketball game.
About our panelists
Benjamin Canada is associate executive director for district services at the Texas Association of School Boards. Earlier in his career he served as superintendent in Jackson, Miss., Portland, Ore., and Atlanta.
Charles Fowler is president of School Leadership, LLC, a Manhattan-based consulting company that helps school districts recruit superintendents and other senior administrators. Earlier in his career he served for more than 35 years as a school and BOCES superintendent in four states.
Bruce Hunter is associate executive director for public policy at the American Association of School Administrators.
Wilfredo T. Laboy
Wilfredo T. Laboy is superintendent of schools in Lawrence, Mass., and president of the Association of Latino Superintendents and Administrators.
Gary Ray is president of Ray & Associates, a superintendent recruiting firm in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Joan Raymond retired earlier this year as superintendent of the South Bend, Ind., Community School Corp., where she served for six years. She had been a superintendent for 28 years, also leading districts in Yonkers, N.Y., Houston and suburban Chicago.
Roy Rowe is superintendent of schools at the Hot Springs School District in Arkansas.
J.D. Solomon is a contributing editor.