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Superintendents' Frustrations Grow, But Intangible Rewards Remain High

The nation’s K12 school superintendents are increasingly fatigued and frustrated by pressures to accomplish more in their districts with less resources. For most, though, personal commitment to public education helps overcome sources of stress stemming from many aspects of their jobs.

That’s the top-level finding of the 2012 Public School Superintendent Salary & Career Report, which was prepared by the District Administration Leadership Institute (DALI), the professional development arm of District Administration magazine. The DALI report’s conclusions come from a survey of U.S. superintendents and in-depth interviews with selected superintendent-members of the Institute and other district leaders.

“We had three goals in producing this annual report,” says Randall Collins, executive director of DALI. “First, we wanted to collect data about superintendent compensation that can be used as a baseline for comparison in future reports. Second, we wanted to provide education executives with information regarding the trends in salary and benefits. Third, and perhaps most important, we wanted to identify the key sources of frustration for superintendents and provide guidance in how to address those stress points.”

The report found that frustrations superintendents face tend to fall in three key categories:

Keeping the ship afloat: Balancing underfunded budgets mandates; closing academic achievement gaps; improving employee morale; shoring up aging infrastructure; and dealing with unexpected enrollment shifts.

Politics, negotiations and diplomacy: Working with unprepared or politically motivated board members; handling labor disputes and employee termination proceedings; and coping with unsupportive or entitlement-minded parents.

Personal stress: Working extraordinarily long hours; performing tasks previously handled by subordinates lost to budget cuts; facing increasingly frequent job changes; and coping with stagnant salaries.

Regarding compensation, the report found that superintendent salaries vary widely. According to the report’s national survey, leaders of districts with fewer than 1,000 students earn an average of just over $100,000, while superintendents of districts with 25,000 or more students earn an average of almost $190,000.

The survey results were based on responses from a sample of 397 superintendents representing a cross-section of districts that reflect the geographic and demographic diversity of all school districts nationwide. The survey was conducted for DALI earlier this year by Martin Akel & Associates, a professional polling and data analysis company. “The salary figures we found were interesting,” says Collins, “but what was more significant was the story behind the numbers. Increasingly, superintendents—regardless of their actual salary—are finding themselves in the difficult position of having to defend their compensation against sentiment among community members and even some board members that they earn too much money.”

Conversely, the DALI report found that many superintendents believe they don’t earn enough money given the growing pressures and demands of their jobs. Over 60 percent of the survey respondents said they expect no pay increase next year, and several of the superintendents interviewed for the report said that pay cuts are becoming more common. And while most superintendents reported support from board members and fellow district administrators, many said their support from local elected leaders, teachers and parents is diminishing. For instance, 45 percent of survey respondents find teachers to be only moderately or not very supportive, and 50 percent said parents are only moderately or not very supportive.

Diminishing community support was one of the reasons cited by superintendents for increasing likelihood that they will be in new jobs within two or three years, as a result of their own decision or their board’s. But superintendents are optimistic about their ability to find new positions in other districts, with nearly half the survey respondents saying they expect to be working elsewhere within three years.

The report also identified common themes of resiliency and determination among superintendents. “While our survey uncovered significant sources of frustration among superintendents, follow-up interviews found a level of dedication and can-do attitude to the job that may be unsurpassed in any other field,” says Collins, a longtime former superintendent in Connecticut and a past president of the American Association of School Administrators. “We were pleased to be able to include in the report numerous examples of how superintendents are coping with their challenges in creative ways.”

For instance, several superintendents interviewed for the report said they have come to accept salary frustrations as part of the job. “Yes, salaries are stagnant or decreasing, but to a certain degree the work is more rewarding,” says Glenn Pelecky, chief administrator of the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency, when interviewed for the report.

“From my perspective, the fact that we have raised accountability has also raised my interest in the work, so I can see the fruits of my labor, and that makes a difference,” Pelecky adds. “Plus, the fact that everyone else—friends, neighbors, kids—are losing their jobs or not getting the increases we’re used to helps put our own salary issues in perspective.”

Indeed, the DALI report found that for superintendents such as Michele Hancock, who leads Kenosha Unified School District No. 1 in Wisconsin, the value and importance of their work far eclipses the difficulties of their jobs. “It’s not about the dollars for me personally, it’s about the passion for the work,” Hancock says. “I truly believe that any individual can make a difference in the lives of others. And that’s what you’re committed to when you take on a superintendent’s role. Do I get stressed out? Yes, no doubt about it. It’s not always an easy job, but it’s a job worth living.”

The full report may be ordered at Copies are provided without cost to members of the District Administration Leadership Institute.The full report may be ordered at Copies are provided without cost to members of the District Administration Leadership Institute.

JD Solomon is editorial director for Professional Media Group, the parent company of District Administration.