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The 11th Annual Salary Survey: They Work Hard for the Money

While CEOs in the private sector are raking in millions, school superintendents in 2011 are having to defend their earnings.
Peter Gorman resigned as the superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in Charlotte, N.C., last June to take a position in the newly created education division of News Corp.

On June 8, News Corp., a media company owned by Rupert Murdoch, snatched two leading school district administrators to head its new education division. Peter Gorman, former superintendent of the Charlotte- Mecklenburg (N.C.) Schools, is the unit's new senior vice president, and Kristen Kane, the former chief operating officer of the New York City Department of Education, is its COO. Late last year, Joel Klein, former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, made the decision as well to join News Corp. as senior advisor to Murdoch.

"Whenever you have the skills to be successful, you are in demand," says Michael Hinojosa, newly appointed superintendent of Cobb County (Ga.) Public Schools. "Joel Klein and Peter Gorman were very successful leaders of large school districts, and the private sector noticed that." Their skills, he says, mirror those of a corporate CEO and include leading what is often a community's primary employer, managing an operating budget of millions, surviving the demands of working long hours seven days a week, and being regularly in the spotlight. Hinojosa, who led the Dallas (Texas) Independent School District for six years, says it is "very typical to get sought after from the outside." At the same time that many former superintendents are being rewarded for performing the same role in the private sector, current superintendents are facing criticism around the country that they are overpaid.

In October 2010, Minnesota's Anoka-Hennepin School District Superintendent Dennis Carlson, standing in Coon Rapids High School, faced the aftermath of at least five students' suicides over the year.

The average salary for superintendents nationwide for the 2010-2011 school year was $161,992, according to Educational Research Survey's 38th national survey, "Salaries and Wages Paid Professional and Support Personnel in Public Schools 2010-2011." Salaries of more than $225,000 were seen in districts with enrollment levels of more than 25,000 students, the salary survey states.

"An outlier for a salary may be $300,000 for large city school systems, and there aren't too many of those," says Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Superintendents (AASA). "If we're looking at $300,000 as the high end, that same person in the private sector leading a company of that magnitude would be making well over $1 million—that's just a fact."

As the AFL-CIO reported in its 2011 Executive Paywatch, CEOs at companies in Standard & Poor's 500 Index received, on average, $1.09 million in 2010. If you factor in stock options, bonuses, pensions and deferred compensation earnings, their income jumped to $11.4 million—a 23 percent increase from 2009. Cash-strapped school leaders saw, on average, a 1.48 percent increase from the $159,634 earnings of last year, and that's without other benefits and perks, according to the 2010-2011 salary survey.

Helena School District Superintendent Bruce Messinger discusses the revisions to the district's controversial sex education curriculum during a school board meeting at Helena Middle School in the fall of 2010.

Attack of the Governors

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has recently singled out some superintendent salaries as an example of "wasteful spending" during these difficult economic times, and he has proposed a salary cap for the state's school leaders. Cuomo's proposal would cap salaries based on student enrollment, with the superintendents in the highest bracket—6,500 or more students— earning no more than $175,000. "We must wake up to the new economic reality that government must be more efficient and cut the cost of the bureaucracy," Cuomo has said.

Cuomo's proposal to cap the salaries of superintendents may come as no surprise to some New York educators. In 1992, Gov. Mario Cuomo, the current governor's father, capped the salaries of Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) of New York state at $166,762. BOCES represent all but nine of the state's 721 school districts and provide a range of services and educational programs.