What's Your Package
You can’t always get what you want, but read this and you may get what you need.
How times have changed.
The average superintendent salary now hovers at around $120,000, and there simply doesn’t seem to be a cap. “There are no barriers at this point,” he says.
Of course, Houston notes that it’s all relative—there are still plenty of superintendents making far less than 100 grand, and moreover, salaries are not improving across the board. Richard Schwartz, an education attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, who negotiates contracts for dozens of school boards and superintendents each year, says he’s seeing some salary stagnation in rural and suburban school systems these days. “[High end] salaries are still moving up, but that’s mainly in large, troubled, urban districts,” Schwartz explains.
And don’t count on perks and bennies to make up the difference. If there’s a new “thing that must not be named,” it’s anything in a contract that smacks of poor taste. Think “season tickets” and “personal driver” during a time when teachers are being laid off, and you get the basic idea. This year, it’s all about the court of public opinion.
“In the old days, you could throw in housing allowances or a few under-the-rug items,” explains Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association (NSBA). “Now districts make it very clear what the perks are—moving expenses, car allowances, a BlackBerry—and they’re far more likely to be reported.” Bryant says that’s partially because of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which contains specific mandates and requirements for financial reporting. It’s also because so many school systems are struggling with finances. And even when the contract includes great perks, many school leaders are simply forgoing them. A super whose contract would pay for her to attend a conference simply isn’t going to get on a plane when she’s also laying off staff members. “It’s the appearance of things that will get you into trouble,” Houston feels.
There are salary changes at the building level as well. Gerald Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), explains that principals have the added burden of convincing their superintendents to let them leave the building—and that’s just not happening when things are tight, despite what the contractual language might say.
“Frivolity” might be out, but concrete financial items are all the rage. There’s nothing wrong with negotiating for packages that include retirement, insurance, and other benefits that contribute to a personal bottom line. Tirozzi says that a lack of quality leaders even seems to be making negotiations a little easier. School boards are regularly offering longer contracts, hefty signing bonuses, and additional vacation time as enticements to new principals, he says.
So what are this year’s hottest trends? Not to be a bore, but it’s mostly the kind of stuff your grandfather would have negotiated. Grab your pipe and slippers and take a look.
The graying of America is occurring in superintendents’ offices too. Attorney Schwartz says the new tax codes have opened up some interesting new ways for superintendents to structure retirement packages, and that’s a big part of what he negotiates these days. Retirement is especially important for administrators who’ve moved from state to state and haven’t built much equity in any one state system. Schwartz believes this is one reason more people are asking for deals that include private retirement programs. “We’re really seeing more flexibility, and more of an ability to customize retirement to a superintendent’s specific needs,” he says.
Tirozzi thinks the whole issue of retirement portability is going to be solved in the very near future—and he says that will create a world of free agency for school leaders. The “A-Rods” of administration who aren’t locked into long-term deals will be freed up to look for better contracts across state lines. “After six or seven years, a good principal gets trapped,” he explains. “They can’t leave because they’d lose too much in pension money.” Tirozzi says that Rhode Island already has portability, but without any other states in the game, there isn’t much chance of school administrators hopping the fence—yet. He says the National Governors Association has been making noise about supporting portability—and as states join up and school leaders increasingly fund private retirement packages, we’ll start seeing more administrators moving around.
Perhaps school boards have this in mind, or maybe they don’t want to spend the time and money involved in searching for a new school leader. They are likely also reading the research on leadership stability and its ties to student achievement. Whatever the case, the length of time on contracts is creeping up. “School boards are increasingly aware of the importance of holding on to good people,” says Houston of AASA.
Bryant says it’s important to remember that despite news accounts to the contrary, about 85 percent of superintendents have a good relationship with their school boards, so it’s no wonder that more school districts are ready and willing to renew their vows. She says one of the most impressive perks she’s ever heard of was called a “peace of mind” clause, in which a school board voted to extend an administrator’s contract to offset any worries about future employment. But if peace of mind is important, so is developing the mind, yet that’s a perk that just doesn’t seem to get any traction. “In higher education, professors get a sabbatical after seven years to rejuvenate,” says Bryant. “In nonprofits, boards demand that leaders take time off in order to ensure that there’s a chain of leadership. It’s very healthy to have time away.”
Schwartz says there’s something he’s not finding in many contracts this year, and that’s performance-based awards, which were hot a few years ago. He says this is due to many factors, but once again, it also comes down to “headlines.” How can a superintendent get a huge bonus for improving student achievement when the teachers don’t get paid for their role in the process? “It’s a good perk in concept, but it just doesn’t work,” Schwartz explains, saying it can in fact be a recipe for disaster. The superintendent takes a deferred compensation of salary, which then looks like a big lump sum that is unfairly going to one person. What’s more, “some boards refuse to do a performance-based review, and the administrator has no recourse except to stomp his feet or go to court.” But the NASSP’s Tirozzi says schools are increasingly writing these types of bonuses into the contracts of principals. “It makes sense to link achievement to someone who is at the building level,” he says.
A look into the future
So what will the next generation of superintendents demand when the current crop of school leaders retire? Will there be less emphasis on retirement, and more pay and perks that center on the needs of young superintendents—say college funds for their children or low-interest mortgages? AASA’s Houston says it’s possible that the weight of too many retirement packages might eventually lead schools to actively search for younger candidates, and this could change the structure of future deals.
Exactly where will districts find these younger candidates? In larger districts, one “soft perk” that superintendents often negotiate is the right to hire their own people to groom. That’s a great way to create a farm league for the district, something that NSBA’s Bryant highly recommends. “When a district hires from within, it usually means it has a strategic process, and it’s not going to flip priorities simply because there’s a new superintendent,” she says.
It’s clear that having qualified people waiting in the wings can be invaluable. Just ask the folks at Galesburg-Augusta Community Schools in Michigan, where Doug Newington is the brand-new interim superintendent. Newington was the district’s business manager until early this year, stepping in when the former superintendent moved on. The good news is that combining the jobs saved the district $26,000 this year—money which allowed Newington to keep the number of instructional hours steady as the district realigned priorities. But it’s also meant that he’s doing double duty. “This morning was a perfect example of what this job is going to be like: I was in the middle of a meeting, with a phone at each ear and two people waiting for me at the door,” Newington says laughingly. That will be something to remember the next time his contract is due.
Pamela Wheaton Shorr is editor of The Heller Reports' Educational Sales and Marketing Insider, and is a frequent contributor to Scholastic Administr@tor.