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Salary Report 2009

Whether you're negotiating a new contract or already have one in place, find out what you're worth during this financial crisis.

By Jacqueline Heinze | March/April 2009

Like never before, your salary is in the spotlight. As districts confront their greatest budget shortfalls to date and staff is being laid off, the pay packages of top administrators are under intense scrutiny by community members and parents worried about their own 401Ks. Across the country, for every school board that approves a pay raise, another district implements a salary freeze, or even a pay cut. Both moves spur a spirited reaction: Either community members rage against school boards who award pay increases, or they applaud the administrators who gallantly turn them down. This past December, school employees in Montgomery County, Virginia, made national headlines—and garnered respect—when they collectively turned down a five percent pay increase to save the district $89 million and help balance the budget.

Under these current economic conditions, and in light of the forfeitures districts and staff are making because of them, it might be hard to imagine negotiating a contract with a high-end salary and a perks-laden pay package. “We’re coming into several years when the fiscal reality is going to be incredibly tough on the school climate,” says Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association (NSBA). But even considering all this, you still don’t necessarily have to settle for less. Is it kosher to stand up and demand a driver with your school board–purchased vehicle? No. But can you demand a competitive salary? Absolutely.

A Superintendent’s Market
As long as school boards perceive a shortage of viable candidates, especially to run large, urban districts, superintendents will be able to command competitive salaries. “The baby boomers are on their way out, and there are fewer people coming in,” says Hank Bangser, CEO of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, a consulting firm that provides executive search services for educational organizations. “It has become an extraordinary difficult job,” he says, and not as many people are willing to do it. He attributes the increased level of difficulty in the position to the public scrutiny it receives through televised board meetings, e-mails, and blogs, as well as the watchful eye of the state’s governor and the local officials.

The job is only getting more challenging, too, as districts lose more and more money. “The scope of the position is about to expand,” says Bryant. Expect to see larger class sizes and, after more consolidations, larger schools. “In this scenario, superintendents will have to focus more on becoming educational leaders,” she says. “We’ll need the best talent now more than ever before.”

Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), agrees. “Leadership is very important in this time,” he says. “If a district wants to hire the person it likes, it will still have to put together an attractive package.”

Indeed, throughout the country, districts are struggling to offer higher salaries to recruit top-notch superintendents, in spite of—or perhaps because of—the economic downturn. In December 2008, Hawaii’s school board supported the motion to remove a salary cap established in 2000 for its superintendent. For the past few years, school chief Patricia Hamamoto has earned the maximum amount of $150,000, but state law limits deputy and assistant superintendents’ salaries to no more than 80 percent of that. As a result, nearly one third of principals have earned more than their bosses over the past few years. According to the board, this ceiling posed a “challenge to recruit and fill” the leadership jobs, and it sought the flexibility to offer top candidates competitive salaries.

But sometimes the money just isn’t there. Only weeks after the board had endorsed this move, the entire idea was thrown out. Following Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle’s plea to more than 200 state workers to forgo $4.1 million in pay hikes due to a projected $1.1 billion budget shortfall, the Hawaii school board decided to fall in line with the state’s initiative. Board members are hopeful that once economic times improve, they will revisit lifting the cap.

“Relative to what teachers make, superintendents earn a lot of money,” says Bryant, “but compared to what people earn in the private sector running large corporations, superintendents are not overpaid.” So despite the financial crisis, you can, at the very least, ask for what you’re worth. Whether or not you receive it depends on whether or not the cash is there.

Your Moral Compass
salary is one thing. perks are something else entirely. “Everyone is aware of the economic situation we’re in,” says Domenech. “Superintendents have to be very careful not to accept exorbitant packages.” To pad contracts with too many fringe benefits just results in a bad public relations move, he says. Bryant concurs, “It’s not time to go for the gold.”

Across the board, fewer and fewer new contracts will include the promise of an annual salary increase. Active superintendents with signed contracts effective over the next few years won’t see significant changes in terms of pay hikes, but they face a different kind of challenge: how to handle them.

There’s a growing trend among top administrators to request salary freezes or to turn down their raises. For example, Sara Querfeld, superintendent of schools in North Haven, Connecticut, said no thanks to a 3.5 percent pay increase. The raise would have added $5,000 to her $141,000 base salary. Instead, Querfeld donated that money to purchase new technology for the district’s first-grade classrooms.

Her story is becoming one of many—and that’s putting pressure on other districts nationwide, as educators and school boards struggle to negotiate individual salaries as well as collective bargaining agreements. According to Bryant, school boards, superintendents, and school staff must strike a three-way balance among the pay educators deserve, the needs of the children, and the responsibility to the taxpayers.

Performance Doesn’t Pay
In addition to salary increases, bonus pay for performance is also on its way out, at least for now. Additional pay based on how well a superintendent is doing his or her job came into vogue roughly five years ago when education’s primary focus turned to setting objectives and reaching benchmarks—or, as Domenech puts it, “at a time when all this measuring kicked in.” Since then, the popularity of performance pay has declined. “It’s almost become counterproductive,” says Domenech. “It’s become increasingly difficult to evaluate performance. School boards are forced to question the intention of superintendents, asking them if the financial incentive had affected their decision-making.”

With so much data out there, the simple solution for how to measure a superintendent’s success is to compare test scores. The only problem is that almost no one likes this idea. “Looking at test scores can be part of it,” Bryant says. “But you also have to look at how the superintendent has done with teacher retention, collaborating with the community, creating a strong curriculum, school safety, and even how happy the kids are.” This criteria is clearly harder to judge than test results.

“Expectations for superintendents need to be laid out up front,” says Bangser, of Hazard, Young, Attea. “But nevertheless, you will see less performance pay written into contracts.”

The Payout Debate
the controversy over payout caps is heating up across the country, and perhaps the hottest spot is Keansburg, New Jersey. In July 2008, when Barbara Trzeszkowski retired as superintendent from Keansburg schools after 38 years with the district, she was set to receive a severance package totaling $740,876. The amount included $556,290 in severance pay and $184,586 for unused sick and vacation days. She was also slated to receive an annual pension of $115,600. In contrast, the school district received $31 million in state aid in 2008, over half its total budget.

The community seethed, and the state Department of Education filed a lawsuit. By January 2009, with the case still unresolved, the Assembly Education Committee unanimously supported a bill requiring districts to use a model superintendent contract and asserting that the state Department of Education would have to approve any changes.

“From now on, boards will have to be much more cautious and aware of showing fiscal responsibility,” says Frank Belluscio, director of communicationsfor the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA).

As for payouts for unused leave time, New Jersey has capped the amount on all new contracts at $15,000. (The New Jersey Association of School Administrators has filed a lawsuit against the regulations.) The state legislature is also taking steps to apply that ceiling to existing contracts. At the very least, Belluscio says the NJSBA advocates paying for unused leave days according to the superintendent’s base salary at the time the days were earned, not at the time the superintendent leaves office.

AASA’s Domenech says that placing caps on payouts is a bad idea. “Superintendents will be much more likely to move around from district to district,” he says. “Capping payouts will only hurt the district because it will affect whom they will be able to hire and how they will maintain them.”

Bryant disagrees. “People don’t work in education to accumulate vacation days,” she says.

Finding the Right Fit
In the midst of these money woes, not everyone is doing poorly. “We conducted 15 percent more superintendent searches in 2008 than in 2007,” says Bangser of Hazard, Young, Attea. That’s partly because baby boomers are retiring and school boards need to replace them with superintendents who will stick. Districts can no longer afford expensive buyouts—such as Miami-Dade’s $370,000 settlement package to get rid of Rudy Crew or Los Angeles’s $517,500 to oust David Brewer. To avoid these costly buyouts, districts are willing to tap the resources available to them and put those resources to the challenge.

Other organizations—nonprofits and state school board associations—manage superintendent searches as well. But no matter how tight the money is, Domenech says, school districts will continue to hire search firms to vet candidates. “It’s worth it to get the right fit.”

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