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Mandatory Raises for Tenn. Superintendents Assailed

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Some residents of Putnam County, Tenn., struggle to earn $12,000 a year. So it was almost scandalous to some that their school superintendent would get that much in a pay raise.

But he was not alone.

In fact, the state board of education handed out raises to 71 of the state's 95 county school superintendents during a telephone-conference call meeting on June 30--the day before the start of fiscal 1996.

The mandatory raises, which ranged from just over $100 to more than $19,000 and come out of county budgets, aimed to bring county superintendents' salaries in line with regional averages. City superintendents were not affected by the raises.

But the 11th-hour passage, as well as the size of the pay hikes, came as an unwelcome surprise to many Tennesseans and have prompted calls to change how the salaries are set.

While reactions have been heated across the state, Putnam County, located about 80 miles west of Nashville, is the only jurisdiction so far to get state board permission to withhold the raise. Its superintendent's salary still stands at $55,946.

"It's probably the most unpopular thing with the school board in three years," said Terry Randolph, the chairman of the county's six-member school board.

'Political Suicide'

Mr. Randolph said his community cares deeply about its school system, which enrolls about 9,200 students. But he called it "political suicide" to push the raise on counties at the last minute--especially in a year when teachers and state employees were already forgoing raises.

Members of the state board obviously disagree. The teleconference vote was 5-0 in favor of the raises; the five other board members did not participate.

C. Brent Poulton, the board's executive director, said it was imperative to get the new pay schedule in place as soon as possible. Most county superintendents are now elected, he said, but school boards will start appointing them in 1997.

"There's always been somebody willing to run regardless of pay, and there would be somebody willing to apply," Mr. Poulton said. "But it's a matter of whom you want to apply."

County superintendents' pay has lagged about $10,000 behind comparable regional averages, according to data from the state board. Despite the regional pay gap, it has never been politically wise for an elected school system chief to support pay increases.

"We've found ourselves perpetuating this legacy of noncompetitive salaries even when the money's there," said Mr. Poulton.

Though Putnam County has managed to waive the raise for at least two years, Rep. Jere L. Hargrove, a Democrat who represents the county in the state legislature, promises that the issue is far from dead.

Mr. Hargrove has pledged to back legislation that would repeal the state board's authority to set minimum salary levels for superintendents. He added that the job belongs with elected lawmakers, not the governor-appointed board.

Mr. Hargrove also remains indignant about how the raises came to pass. It was such a hot issue, he said, that one of his constituents even protested the raises to him at a funeral.

"There's virtually nothing about it that was done right in terms of voters," Mr. Hargrove said. "Everywhere I went, people told me they opposed it."

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