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DA's 10th Annual Salary Survey: A Salary Recession for School Administrators?

In addition to the 2009-2010 salary survey data from Educational Research Services, DA shows how administrators are feeling their share of pain given the economic stranglehold on district budgets.

If you didn't get the raise you were hoping for recently, you're certainly not alone. Almost every day, it seems, school districts coping with budget shortfalls are announcing freezes or cuts to administrative salaries and benefits as part of the solution, a trend that began during the past school year and is becoming more prevalent around the country.

Salaries, which account for more than 70 percent of some school budgets, have become a natural target as school boards and superintendents try to inflict minimal damage on student learning. In Dalton, Ga., the school superintendent's salary plummeted by $14,000 last year in an across-the-board cut for all administrators and teachers in the district.

The East Providence (R.I.) School Committee voted this past May to cut the pay of all 29 of the district's administrators by 5 percent for the 2010-2011 school year, and required principals to fund 20 percent of their health insurance costs.

In Los Angeles, administrators across the school system have agreed to wage cuts from 4 to 7 percent, part of the reductions accepted by all of the sprawling district's eight unions for middle-level administrators across the district, in order to avoid the 8,000 layoff s that Superintendent Ramon Cortines forecast without those concessions.

With hundreds of administrative positions eliminated in the past few years, those left employed are taking on a mounting workload. State governments are also exerting pressure on salaries, as state defi cits mount and the public becomes increasingly suspicious of all government spending. Idaho's legislature has mandated a 6.5 percent cut for administrators in the current school year, along with a 4 percent reduction for teachers and other school employees.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, meanwhile, is waging a high-profile battle with the state's teachers and administrators over pay and benefits. He wants to freeze salaries and to require teachers and administrators to kick in 1.5 percent of their earnings for health insurance. "It's the new reality in New Jersey across all segments of government," says Mike Drewniak, the spokesman for Christie.

This accelerating trend comes as no surprise to the American Association of School Administrators, which has surveyed school districts and is predicting a loss of 275,000 K12 education jobs over the coming year.

AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech adds that he has not seen many districts raising salaries at the central office. "It's very difficult for communities and boards of education not to make reductions in salaries and benefits when there are so many job cuts in schools and when people see what's happening in the private sector," Domenech explains, adding that pay reductions have become the preferred alternative to large-scale layoff s and program cuts.

Lower Pay, Jobs Saved

That preference, says Jim Hawkins, superintendent of the 6,800-student Dalton (Ga.) Public Schools, led to unpaid furlough days for administrators and teachers over the 2009-2010 school year. The process began months earlier as the district was losing millions of dollars in state funding. "I made the rounds to the schools and said, 'Folks, we have a revenue problem and we have to start cutting back.' I got input from employees, and there was a groundswell of, 'Let's preserve jobs and cut pay across the board.'"

"The way we've approached reductions was by contract days [figuring cuts to salary in terms of the days lost], and the ones with the highest pay took the most reductions," Hawkins explains. Even though he was in the middle of a three-year contract, he reduced his paid workdays— along with those of the deputy and assistant superintendents, program directors, and support staff —from 240 to 220. This turned out to be an 8 percent cut in his salary, from $177,000 to $163,000. The number of furlough days decreased for lesser-paid employees.

Food service workers, for example, went from 186 to 181 days. Hawkins notes that his pay cut exceeded the 4-5 percent reduction in teacher salaries (via three furlough days) and allowed him to lead by example. "I see the role of superintendent as being the moral and intellectual leader in a school district," he says. "You've got to do the right thing and take the high road."

The same decreases are in effect for Dalton's school administrators in 2010- 2011, although teachers will see their furlough days increase to 10.

It's the Economy

To be sure, growing budget shortfalls and continuing economic hard times have had a lot to do with the changing numbers on administrators' paychecks. Since 2003, the Dalton Public Schools have lost a total of $17 million in state funding. Those numbers increase exponentially in larger districts.

The Los Angeles Unified Public School District faced a $596 million deficit for this year and is expecting an even larger shortfall next school year. Before targeting the salaries and benefits of the state's educators last March, New Jersey Gov. Christie had already declared a "fiscal emergency" in the face of a $2 billion state deficit for the fiscal year that ended in June and an almost $11 billion shortfall predicted for FY 2011.

But school administrators—particularly superintendents—also have become the objects of a larger public dissatisfaction with government and public employees in general. And some people think that small cuts in salaries are hardly enough considering the magnitude of the nation's economic crisis. When central administrators and school principals of the Novi (Mich.) Public Schools agreed to a 1.5 percent wage cut last February as their contribution toward bridging a budget gap, reader responses in the local Oakland Press included plenty of skeptical comments, such as, "If this wasn't so tragic it would be laughable. The superintendent makes $185,000 a year plus expenses. Would he even notice a 1.5 percent cut?" A headline last May in California's Marin Independent Journal blared, "Pay raises for Marin school administrators raise fury," and an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer questioned a $65,000 bonus awarded to School District of Philadelphia CEO Arlene Ackerman for meeting performance goals. The newspaper argued that her $325,000 salary was reward enough and that meeting those goals was part of the CEO's job.

Superintendents' salaries have become political fodder as well, especially as legislators and other state officials wrestle with reduced revenues. Last spring, a state legislator in South Carolina volunteered to take a 20 percent pay cut in the hopes that school administrators would follow suit, a gesture that came off more as political grandstanding since the lawmaker's part-time salary amounted to barely above $10,000. His gesture appeared to have not been imitated as of June.

In New Jersey, the more than 60 administrators—mainly superintendents— earning above $200,000 have drawn more attention from the governor's office. "By and large, the negotiated salaries for superintendents are way out of line. And there seems to have been no effort to stop this spiral," says Drewniak. "But like everything else, the time has come. It's hard to justify salaries of $200,000 plus, especially in small districts." Any salary reductions in New Jersey have been either voluntarily offered by individual administrators or determined across the board by school districts.

There is no sign that the governor has imposed anything yet as far as salaries go, but last March, Christie sent a letter to the New Jersey Association of School Administrators asking for a salary freeze in 2011. Liv Finne, director of the Center for Education at the conservative Washington Policy Center in Seattle, is even more blunt in her assessment of top salaries. "School board members—when they pay $225,000 to a superintendent for running a small school district—are abrogating a trust that we place in them to watch over how taxpayer money is being spent," Finne declares.

Domenech calls such criticism unjustified. "When you consider the scope of responsibility and the amount of work superintendents do, and you look at folks working in the private sector, the salaries don't begin to compare," he says. "It's a real problem, because there are talented individuals who choose to be in education and could make significantly more in the private sector than in public education."

A Revolt in New Jersey

Anthony Cavanna, superintendent of the West Orange (N.J.) Public Schools, can speak from experience. He came to his present job after working five years in the private sector. "I made significantly more in salary, benefits and profit-sharing than I get now," he notes. Cavanna, who has 2.5 percent raises built into his contract with West Orange, already feels that he's made salary concessions simply by taking his present job, but he also contributed last year's increase to the district's educational foundation and plans to do so again this year.

Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, points to a 2008 study by the National Center for Education Statistics showing that the percentage of the budget spent on administrator salaries in New Jersey is the eighth lowest in the country, but he concedes that the public is in no mood for those statistics. "You have unemployment at 10 percent and as close to a tax revolt as one can have in New Jersey," Bozza observes,adding that less than half of the proposed school budgets in the state's 580 districts were passed by local voters this year, while the rest had to be scaled back. Almost a third of those districts have declared salary reductions or freezes.

Christie is pushing for a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would cap local tax increases at 2.5 percent annually, a limit that Massachusetts has imposed for decades and has further strained school budgets. And Christie has also proposed a salary freeze for all educators in 2011.

Rising Responsibilities

Bozza adds that even as salaries of administrators have come under greater scrutiny, their responsibilities have continued to expand. While the numbers of students and teachers statewide have risen by 30 and 40 percent respectively over the past 16 years, Bozza points out, administrative and supervisory jobs have increased by just 3 percent, with a rise in individual workload. "We've got administrators working longer and harder and probably being appreciated less when it comes to salary," he says. "It's 'Do more with less.'"

Judith Perez, president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, shares those concerns. Her union represents what she calls the district's nearly 2,000 "middle managers," including principals, assistant principals, instructional specialists, and professional development coordinators. While upper-level managers, such as superintendents and division heads, will take four-day furloughs for this school year, members of AALA will take five days and another seven next year. "We agreed to accept furlough days as part of the district's attempt to basically stay afloat," Perez says.

The biggest impact on her members' earnings, Perez explains, is in the change of their job status and the number of days they are allowed to work. "Some have gone from the maximum 249 days to 197. We're talking 52 days lost," she says. "So people are spending longer working days,staying at night, and taking work home." Perez also has seen her ranks thinned by 700 via layoff s over the past two years. " e work that needs to be done remains the same. You have fewer people to do it because of all the [position cuts], and less time to do it in," she says. "School administrators are viewed as essential to reform eff orts. They have a huge responsibility and fewer resources to do the work."

Even in school districts where administrators continue to see salary increases, expanding job descriptions have become a way of life. While in the past year the 175 administrators in the Spokane (Wash.) Public Schools received 3 to 9 percent raises and cost of living adjustments, minus several furlough days, Staci Vesneske, the district's assistant superintendent for human services, notes that the district has lost many administrative positions over the past decade by layoff s and attrition. "We were able to absorb the first half-dozen cuts efficiently," Vesneske recalls. "But nowadays, people are taking on a lot more responsibility because most things still need to be done."

Domenech does not see the reduction in administrative jobs or administrative salaries ending anytime soon. "The fact that superintendents are taking pay cuts suggests it's going to be a long time before they get increases," he warns, noting that the prospects are even worse for the 2011- 2012 school year, when federal stimulus funds run out.

"I've never seen anything like this in my career, and I don't believe we're through," adds Superintendent Hawkins, who has spent 37 years in public education. "This is the new normal."