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As Free Agents, District Chiefs Vie in Competitive Marketplace

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Minnesota auditors were surprised this fall to find that about a dozen school districts in the Twin Cities area had overstepped the state's salary cap for superintendents.

The cap limits what a district can pay a superintendent to 95 percent of the governor's salary, or about $108,000.

But, many educators in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area say, the infractions only prove that school districts are finding the competition tough when they go shopping for superintendents. Minnesota's largest districts are pitted against school systems in other states that can afford to offer bigger salaries and better raises for top jobs.

"I don't believe for a minute that school boards are intentionally violating the statute. But they have to do something to entice people," said John Sylvester, the director of management services for the Minnesota School Boards Association. He pointed out that districts upped the ante by expanding fringe benefits, not base pay--an approach that many school officials interpreted as keeping clear of the pay ceiling.

The Minnesota districts are not alone in looking for ways to be competitive in the national market for superintendents. Many of the country's school systems play the same game as they vie for administrative talent. Often, it's the bottom line that separates one district from the pack.

Jeremiah Floyd, an associate executive director of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va., pointed out that the intensity of competition varies among the 15,000 school districts across the United States. But few other professionals in the prime of their careers have the mobility that metropolitan-area superintendents have.

Many district schools chiefs--like professional athletes or college presidents--operate like free agents as they move from post to post, and city to city, increasing their earnings potential.

The pay has been climbing in the nation's larger districts because "people don't last as long as they used to," said Lloyd Nielsen, whose suburban St. Paul office--Plath, Nielsen, and Rogers--conducts superintendent searches for districts nationwide. And, Mr. Nielsen said, there has to be some monetary incentive to get superintendents to stay once they've been hired.

Six Figures Common

Last year, the average annual salary for school district chiefs nationwide was about $90,000, not including any fringe benefits, according to a survey of salaries and wages in public schools by the Educational Research Service, a nonprofit group based in Arlington, Va. That is up from an average of just under $80,000 in 1990-91.

But in districts of 25,000 students or more, the average pay for superintendents was more than $112,000, the ERS found. At the top of the heap are superintendents in the 47 largest urban districts, which typically enroll more than 64,000 students. The Council of the Great City Schools, which represents those systems, estimates that superintendents in those districts are paid an average of about $120,000.

Currently, the nation's highest-paid superintendent is Octavio J. Visiedo of Dade County, Fla., the fourth-largest U.S. school district, whose salary is $220,400. (See chart, this page.)

Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based city schools' council, said the amounts often come up short when compared with private-sector jobs that require many of the same skills.

But the salaries are not far from those in other high-visibility jobs in education that require an advanced degree, business savvy, and political skill. University and college presidents, for example, earned an average of $115,000 in 1994-95, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

And, like leaders in higher education, superintendents are often lured away by districts that can offer more money and high-profile posts. This happens most frequently in large urban districts.

Second-Tier Districts

But suburban and midsize systems are also part of the market. In recent months, many districts in second-tier cities have shown their willingness to offer top salaries for sought-after candidates.

  • The Kansas City, Mo., school board this fall came close to hiring veteran superintendent John Murphy for a record $250,000 a year. Mr. Murphy this year earned a $15,000 bonus in addition to his annual salary of roughly $157,000 as the schools chief in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C. The superintendent recently announced that he would be leaving the district when his contract expires next June.

    The Kansas City business community reportedly planned to help the 37,000-student Missouri district pay for his services. Mr. Murphy, who had pushed for $275,000 or more, later dropped out of the search over what he said was a lack of board support.

  • The 45,000-student Seattle school district last summer hired a retired U.S. Army major general for $175,000 a year and the chance to earn an extra $10,000 in bonuses. John Stanford, the former manager of Atlanta's county government, had earned a reputation for turning around public agencies. (See Education Week, Oct. 11, 1995.)
  • The top administrators in districts such as Minneapolis--and a growing number of suburban school systems--have pay-for-performance or incentive provisions in their contracts, which can boost their pay by 10 percent or more if the superintendents meet certain goals. (See Education Week, Sept. 14, 1994.)

Shopping the Market

In Minnesota, the state audit found that the Twin Cities districts had pumped up the perks--instead of the base pay--in an effort to attract superintendents.

State Auditor Judi Dutcher, whose office surveyed 51 districts in the metropolitan area, found that many systems violated the pay cap between 1993 and 1995 by offering mileage reimbursement and an automobile allowance; the law allows for only one of those. Moreover, the auto allowances ranged from $1,200 a year to $12,000 a year, the report said.

The study was part of a state probe of public-sector spending.

"It's a political hot potato here because $108,000 is a lot of money," Jackie Magnuson, the school board president in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district, said of the maximum salary. The 26,000-student district was among those cited by the auditors as being above the cap.

"But if you can go somewhere like Wisconsin or Texas [and] earn a lot more, you're not going to stay," Ms. Magnuson added.

For instance, she said, the schools chief in the Anoka-Hennepin district--one of the biggest in the Twin Cities area with about 36,000 students--recently went to a job out of state, where he could earn about $20,000 more a year in a district of comparable size.

Other Minnesota board members said that candidates for their top posts often drop out when they hear of the cap.

"I think it's really going to be hurtful in the long run," Ms. Magnuson said, "in terms of attracting qualified, talented superintendents to the state, especially in the larger districts."

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