Top executives at the country’s largest school districts know what it takes to boost their compensation. Read on for tips when considering your own pay package.
By Pamela Wheaton Shorr
When Rudy Crew signed on as the new superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools in 2004, he received a four-year package with a $295,000 annual base salary plus a $50,000 to $80,000 bonus that goes up each year of the contract. Crew also got a car, home loan, and retirement benefits that bring his total compensation to nearly half a million dollars a year.
OK, so Crew’s value-added benefits are higher than yours. But according to Thomas E. Glass, professor of educational leadership at the University of Memphis, benefits and perks add an average of 35 to 40 percent to the value of most superintendent contracts. Glass is in the midst of updating a 2003 survey that includes data on superintendent contract trends. He says that no state today requires disclosure on what superintendents receive outside of their base salary, which makes it difficult to get a real handle on what’s going on out there.
The fact that no one is watching over the kinds of perks being offered obviously works in favor of superintendents and other district-level administrators like you looking to sweeten a compensation package.
“Boards usually want to keep salaries down,” explains Richard Schwartz, an education-law attorney based in Raleigh, North Carolina, who has negotiated packages for dozens of administrators throughout the country over the past 26 years. “[Boards] are willing to offer perks because they’re less visible, less controversial, and less political.”
So, what’s hot and what’s not in contracts this year? Here are some ideas you might be able to use to improve your own deal now or in future job negotiations. You don’t have to be a top executive to score perks. You never know. You too may someday be enjoying that new-car smell, financial security, more time off, or lower tax bills. In fact, says Schwartz, the only limit to the kinds of perks available today is “imagination—and what’s legal.” Here’s what we’re hearing:
The way that many executives bounce from district to district means that quite a few are left on the outside of long-term pension deals. Benefits such as deferred tax annuities, post-employment health insurance coverage, and programs that allow superintendents and others to buy additional “time” in state retirement plans are important ways for administrators to make up for lost time, says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). Sick-leave buyouts and vacation reimbursements can literally add tens of thousands of dollars to retirement savings. One common negotiation tactic is to persuade a new district to credit your sick or vacation time from a previous community.
All the rage just a few years ago, performance bonuses have cooled considerably, according to Houston. “Measuring performance has always been the most difficult part,” he says. Schwartz adds that many districts have found themselves in the midst of a political hornet’s nest when a district administrator scores a bonus for student achievement while the teachers or principals who work with the kids day in and day out receive nothing. Still, Glass believes that we’ll continue to see performance incentives in large urban districts where improving student achievement tops the agenda.
So-called golden-handcuff clauses—contracts that offer a cash incentive to administrators simply for staying put—continue to heat up. That’s because there’s a shortage of good superintendents, and boards are concerned that good ones will be recruited out of their districts if not given a compelling reason to hang around. “Golden handcuffs are designed to keep districts from stealing,” Houston says.
EXTRAS THAT ADD UP FAST
Other perks du jour concern the day-to-day expenses incurred by administrators in the course of doing business. Cars, cell phones, laptops, and other tools that keep administrators connected and potentially available 24/7 are being handed out regularly as well. Even health club memberships are seen as a way to keep school leaders in good shape for the tough job they face each day. Glass says at least one superintendent has asked for—and received—a clothing allowance. Houston says school boards are also starting to realize that school leaders are constantly hit up for donations for political events and charities that they wouldn’t have to support if they weren’t such a visible part of the school. “School boards are tired of having to approve all these costs—they’re starting to give administrators monthly expense accounts,” he says.
HOME SWEET HOME
Glass says that “teacherages”—homes supplied by the district for the top administrator, à la church parsonages—are pretty much a thing of the past. You’ll still occasionally find administrators getting use of a house in rural communities and in areas where housing is very difficult to come by. Instead, more administrators are landing a variety of lucrative perks, including low-interest home loans, housing allowances, reimbursement for moving expenses, and stipends for temporary housing during relocation.
SPREADING THE WEALTH
Gerald N. Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), says that by and large, principals have a harder time negotiating perks and benefits than superintendents. That’s because in larger districts, they’re often under collective bargaining agreements. And in rural communities, principals have to hammer out a deal one-on-one with the superintendent, rather than with a board. But, Tirozzi says, “we’re beginning to see signing bonuses,” and he predicts that they’ll soon reach the $20,000 to $25,000 level. He thinks the shortage of qualified principal candidates, especially at the high school level, is starting to turn the tide in principal perks as well. He believes that enhanced health benefits for principals will begin to gain traction: “And there’s more going on around IRAs too and districts matching IRA retirement contributions.”
The best prediction for perks to come? Anything that helps diffuse the immense pressure of the job is a welcome addition. Houston says his favorite extra of all time was negotiated by a forward-thinking superintendent in Canada quite a few years ago. “This guy had a number of interesting perks,” Houston says. “He got his whole salary at the beginning of the year so that he could invest it. He also had something in his contract called a think month.” In addition to the usual vacation clause, the board agreed to pay the superintendent to travel anywhere in the world and think about education. That meant he could visit schools in Singapore or Australia, attend international education conferences, or simply take time off to consider issues that affected his district. Houston says he would love to see this kind of reflective time built into more contracts. “So many superintendents retire simply because they’re burnt out,” he notes. “The job chews you up. Maybe if people could take time off periodically, we’d lose fewer of them.”
How likely is a “think month” for all? Well, says attorney Schwartz, don’t rule it out. “We’re going to continue to see more exotic benefit clauses now and in the future,” he says. “It’s simply the law of supply and demand.”
Additional reporting for this story by Kerry Prendergast and Beatrice Hogan. Photo research by Amla Sanghvi.