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What Are You Worth?

The state of school-chief compensation is strong. And these days it seems that pay packages are about more than just the money. Really!

By Pamela Wheaton Shorr

Forget Rudy Crew of Miami and his whopping salary. That’s so last year. The big news nowadays in administrative pay packages is that being a superintendent has finally turned into a good gig. “Salaries are pretty decent because they’ve jumped in the past couple of years,” says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA).

According to the latest figures from the Educational Research Service (ERS), the average salary of a school superintendent ranges from about $103,000, in districts with 2,500 students or fewer, to a median of $185,000 in school systems with more than 25,000 students. Salaries in large urban districts regularly top $200,000, as they do in a growing number of suburban areas. More than a dozen Long Island, New York, superintendents make well north of $200,000.

Houston reports that the AASA has just completed its State of the Superintendency survey, and an impressive 80 percent of respondents are “pretty satisfied with their jobs,” he says.

“Twenty years ago it was a buyer’s market, with hundreds of applications for each administrator job,” recalls William Bainbridge, distinguished research professor at the University of Dayton and a former school superintendent in Ohio and Virginia. “Today, superintendents are in the driver’s seat.”

Salaries increasingly reflect this, and Houston notes that many perks and items that used to be called bennies are now standard in superintendent contracts—even in smaller markets. For example, a 2006 survey conducted by the Texas Association of School Administrators found that 13 percent of districts provided some kind of housing benefit. Cell phones, moving expenses, retirement packages, and car allowances are no longer rarities. Even the most elusive of so-called soft perks—like “peace of mind”—are being addressed. “Boards are increasingly giving superintendents a vote of confidence and lengthening their contracts [early],” Houston says. “They’ve gone through the search, and they don’t want to lose strong leaders. And there’s some research that suggests stability makes a difference in student achievement.”

The job that keeps on giving
A contractual pat on the back is just what happened to Jack Dale, superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools in Falls Church, Virginia. Dale was hired in 2004 to run the school system of 164,000 students, and his contract wasn’t up until 2008. But this past December his board voted to extend his deal well into 2010 to show its continued support. Under the new agreement, Dale’s annual salary would remain $266,292—one of the highest base salaries for a school superintendent in the Washington, D.C., area. The deal includes 26 days of vacation, maximum contributions to 403B and 457 plans, and an annual salary increase pegged to the percentage given to other district employees, which means he won’t have to negotiate future raises. Dale says that at 57, one of the most important benefits to him is the retirement plan, and the fact that Fairfax County had a decent retirement system played a hand in his original decision to move to the district.

But there are other, nonmonetary factors that Dale made sure to weigh. “A vision aligned with the school board’s vision is priceless,” he said with a laugh. “One of the things I’ve learned is the power of having a shared vision.” He’s a big fan of the rich cultural community available to him by living so near the capital, too. And Dale is concerned with his own intellectual growth. That is why he has structured a deal in which he can use his leave time to pick up consulting work and speak at conferences. “That’s less financial than a way to keep my finger in things and to work with other superintendents,” he explains.

Brent Clark, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators and a former superintendent in three Illinois school districts, believes that there are four drivers that superintendents routinely examine in any compensation package: pay, community lifestyle, amenities, and how the job will affect family. Moreover, he says that superintendents find themselves in different life stages, and this has quite an effect on the deals they want to make. “If you’re in a window where your kids are college age, you’re going to want a higher salary,” he believes, “whereas if you’re older, you’ll be looking at your retirement package.”

In fact, Illinois has had enormous turnover recently because of retirement, and Clark says that may change superintendent compensation around the state. He says incoming superintendents—particularly if they’re new to the profession—often earn significantly less than near retirees because they are unproven commodities to their boards. New superintendents may also be less savvy about negotiating higher pay. But demographic changes could shake things up as well. In Illinois, the retirements have led to an increase in female superintendents, with numbers now up to around 25 percent. According to the ERS, female superintendents earn an average of about $9,000 more than men.

The principal factor
The overall story is not quite as pretty for principals, according to Gerald Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals and a former assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education. According to the latest figures from the ERS, high school principals make an average of $84,515; junior high/middle school principals make about $80,261; and elementary school principals make an average of $76,456.

Tirozzi says that when adjusted for the cost of living, these salaries are actually down. Meanwhile, he says, on-the-job hours are unrelenting, and school principals have become much more directly responsible for schools’ making adequate yearly progress and for No Child Left Behind requirements. At the same time, soft perks such as going out for lunch are impossible in many schools. Even standard benefits are under attack, Tirozzi believes. “There is a continuing effort to cut back on health and vacation benefits,” he says. “Many principals have only one-year contracts and no protection. Our concern is that the principal is the endangered species in education.”

Tirozzi believes this combination of pressure, poor pay, and lack of benefits is reflected in a nationwide dearth of good candidates for the job of principal, particularly at the high school level. But he does see some bright spots. He says more school systems have begun “grow your own” principal-training programs, and he sees some younger people with lots of energy stepping into leadership roles. Tirozzi says schools are also playing around with creative ways to save money and still keep seasoned professionals. He has seen a growing number of older principals “retire” at 55, take the mandatory 30 days off work, begin collecting two-thirds of their salaries in pension—and then get rehired by their districts as independent contractors without benefits. “Even if the principal takes 80 percent of his previous $100,000 salary, he’s just upped his salary to $180,000 a year,” Tirozzi says. “But personally, I’d love to see contracts in which a principal worked five or six years and then got half a year off to recharge.”

That certain something extra

Let’s face it: Although the jobs may be great, none of them are easy—and sabbaticals are hard to find. So, often, it is that certain something extra that can keep a school leader going and make the job of being an administrator fulfilling, such as the opportunity to live in another country. Keith Miller, director of the Office of Overseas Schools, is the former director of the American School of Guatemala and the Lincoln School of Costa Rica. Miller says his choice of a job was about location, location, location. “I have always cherished the time I spent in Latin America,” he says. There are 104 American Schools around the world, and salaries are understandably all over the board. A recent survey shows, however, that quite a few of their superintendents make more than $100,000 a year. And the benefits are terrific. Most come with furnished housing and travel, as well as tuition for a school leader’s children.

American Schools are expensive and elite, and the families who send their children to these schools take education very seriously, according to Miller. “There are almost no discipline problems.” Miller says the campuses are often spectacular, and there’s something almost historic about working in an overseas school. For instance, at a recent summit of the six presidents of Central America, five were graduates of American Schools! “It’s truly an opportunity to meet people who will one day shape the world,” Miller says.

Not everyone is willing to go halfway around the world to run a school. But some are creating a world of their own right here at home. For the past 12 years Thomas Commeret has been head of Marblehead Community Charter School, the oldest charter school in Massachusetts. “I had a good job, and this was a real risk,” he remembers, “but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start a school from scratch.”

Commeret’s annual salary is $96,000, with a bonus incentive of $6,500. According to Robin Lake, who directs the National Charter School Research Project at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, there are 3,638 charter schools across the country, and pay is typically about $15,000 less for the leaders of charters than for leaders at other public schools. But for Commeret, it’s been worth it. “We can be innovative, we have the freedom to create our own program, and as long as we continue to do well on the state-mandated tests, we can continue to chart our own course,” he says.

One could argue that many charter schools are similar in approach to private schools, and if that’s the case, private schools are the better choice financially. The average annual base salary for private-school heads across the country this year is $167,000, according to the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). “This is the first year we’ve actually collected such detailed info,” says Myra McGovern, director of public information at NAIS. She says most private schools offer health and disability insurance and some form of car allowance. There are a couple of big-ticket items as well. “Many offer housing allowances, whether a house on campus or a stipend to pay for housing in the area, primarily because these schools are often located in areas with a very high cost of living,” she notes.

One of the most interesting benefits is tuition remission for headmasters’ children who attend the school. With a median annual tuition of $16,970, free schooling for a couple of kids can add to the value of the total package.

Of course, where salaries and benefits are hefty, at least in the public sector, there can be pretty stiff pushback from local constituents. Last March, the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation (SCI) uncovered a series of “questionable and hidden pay and perks” for top school leaders and recommended sweeping reforms. These included legislation requiring greater transparency, regular public disclosure of employee compensation, and the establishment of benefit limits, including a blanket prohibition against cashing in unused accumulated leave. The AASA’s Houston says that often these fights are about politics. A superintendent crosses the governor, for instance, and suddenly the salary-and-benefits package is a public issue. “There has been less transparency in superintendent contracts, but nothing like the private sector,” Houston says, recalling his experience as a superintendent, “It used to be embarrassing that everyone knew how much I made."

Meanwhile, some people seem to believe that if you can’t get rid of the high pay packages for school administrators, it might make sense to get rid of the whole job. Governor John Baldacci of Maine is attempting to slash the number of school districts (currently 290) and superintendents (152) down to 26 districts, with one superintendent per district. The governor estimates the consolidation would save taxpayers $250 million over the next three years. Vermont is studying a similar plan to consolidate its 284 districts to 58, and Arkansas and Nebraska have been attempting to reduce their superintendent roster as well.

Whether the tide has turned and school leaders will remain satisfied with their compensation is up for debate. But many think that the public is finally beginning to get it. “Most people would say that compared with the private sector, the most highly compensated people in the school system are fairly paid,” says Dale of Fairfax County Public Schools. “But I’ve seen an ebb and flow in my career.” @

About the Author

Pamela Wheaton Shorr is editor of The Heller Reports' Educational Sales and Marketing Insider, and is a frequent contributor to Scholastic Administr@tor.

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