Pay Soars For Schools Chiefs In Big Districts

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As urban and larger suburban districts search a shallow pool of proven leaders who can improve their public schools, the price of superintendents is rising--in several cases above the $200,000 mark.

And while the schools chiefs in such high-profile districts as Chicago, Philadelphia, and the District of Columbia earn less than that amount, some suburban and smaller-city superintendents are commanding far higher salaries.

"What's new is there's a shortage. That shortage is starting to drive the salary issue," said Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "Quite simply, there aren't enough good superintendents out there."

To find the best, and to keep ones school boards want, a new menu of pay ranges and benefits has emerged. But it's not always happening in the most obvious districts.

In Montgomery County, Md., the school board recently hired Greensboro, N.C., Superintendent Jerry Weast for $237,000 a year, plus benefits. He makes just a few thousand dollars short of what Maryland's governor and the state superintendent earncombined.

The 128,000-student district in suburban Washington wanted someone who could raise a respected school system to the next level. Mr. Weast's contract shows how far the Maryland district was willing to go to meet that goal: the highest salary of any public official in the state, five weeks' vacation, a $4,000 medical account to cover insurance copayments, and a relocation package worth roughly $30,000. Mr. Weast declined to discuss his contract.

In Arlington, Texas, the school board liked Superintendent Mac Bernd so much, they were willing to up the ante to keep him.

Mr. Bernd, who makes $165,000 plus benefits, begins his third year in January in the 57,000-student district between Dallas and Fort Worth. It's not his salary that's his biggest reward for impressing the board. It's job security for the 56-year-old educator.

An agreement took effect in June that guarantees Mr. Bernd will keep his name off lists of candidates drawn up by superintendent-search firms, and that he won't actively seek another job. This isn't a restriction--Mr. Bernd suggested the agreement as part of his contract.

"He's brought to us a whole new focus on letting schools truly achieve," said John McInnis, the Arlington school board chairman and the president of the Texas Association of School Boards. "We want to make it possible for him to be very successful."

Tough Job, Good Pay

It's no surprise to some observers that salaries are rising to new levels even though inflation and cost-of-living increases are at their lowest levels in years.

Mr. Houston, a former superintendent in Princeton, N.J., and Tucson, Ariz., said the rise in some salaries is a recognition that the job of running a school system is finally getting the respect--and requiring the skills--it should have had all along.

"They tend to usually be the most responsible position in any community," said Mr. Houston, who noted that school districts often are among the largest employers and have some of the biggest budgets of any private or public entity in their communities.

Dallas recently hired Superintendent Waldemar "Bill" Rojas away from San Francisco for $260,000 plus benefits, then allowed him to hire a staff of deputies at a cost of about $1 million.

The Dallas school board's reputation for divisiveness cost the district. "They had to pay top dollar," said Mr. Houston. In fact, Dallas has made Mr. Rojas the nation's highest-paid superintendent.

Mr. Houston contends that some superintendents' salaries are substantially lower than they should be. He cited as an example Rudolph F. Crew, the New York City schools chancellor, who received a raise that starting this month brings his salary to about $245,000 a year plus free housing--an important factor in New York.

Though Mr. Crew heads the nation's largest school district, with an $8 billion budget, Mr. Houston says his salary pales when compared with corporate managers in Manhattan.

"The highest-paid superintendent in America still makes less than minimum wage in Major League baseball," Mr. Houston said.

New Demands

When Marion Bolden became superintendent in Newark, N.J., in September after 30 years as a teacher and administrator there, she agreed to a $150,000 salary plus bonuses for higher test scores.

Now that she's been on the job a few weeks, Ms. Bolden is less comfortable with her performance bonuses, and is beginning to realize the challenges she faces in the state-controlled, 44,000-student district.

"I do think that given the responsibility that comes with this job, it probably isn't competitive," she said of her salary, adding that improving achievement is the reason she was hired, regardless of incentives. "I would not take a superintendency someplace else. ... It's an awesome task."

In Texas, urban and suburban boards appear ready to reward superintendents who have districts headed in the right direction--giving them an average 14 percent raise last year, more than double the average raise in smaller districts, said Cindy Clegg, the director of personnel services for the Texas Association of School Boards.

"The experienced-applicant pool among larger school districts is shrinking and is small," Ms. Clegg said.

With those big-district jobs comes greater pressure, though. Texas superintendents keep their jobs an average of four years in districts with more than 50,000 students- -only half the average tenure of leaders in smaller districts, according to the state school boards' association.

All of which makes a competitive market for people who can improve struggling districts, or help stable districts rise to new levels of success. "Being an urban superintendent does require unique experience," Ms. Clegg added, noting that only 10 of Texas' 1,046 districts have more than 50,000 students. "There's not a large experience pool to draw from in our state or any other state." That, she said, means that the good superintendents "are being raided all the time by search consultants."

Age of Competition

Suburban districts like Arlington, Texas, often want the same qualities that successful urban superintendents have, which increases the competition, Mr. McInnis said.

"I think you're going to see superintendents' salaries rise past the quarter-million mark in Texas and certainly other places," he predicted.

"We are now asking our school leaders to be far more creative and far more accountable to a broader population than ever before," Mr. McInnis added. "Ten or 20 years ago, you could look at superintendents who handled discipline matters, a few parent and teacher matters, and little else."

That, he and other experts say, is no longer the case.

"It is a complex thing," said Pascal D. Forgione Jr., the former U.S. commissioner of education statistics who became the superintendent of the 76,000-student Austin, Texas, schools in August.

Mr. Forgione, who earns $185,000, noted that when he took the job he found himself in charge of a 50-member school police force--not to mention the long list of education-related duties. "Most people who enter this," he said, "realize this is going to be a very challenging opportunity at best."

Vol. 19, Issue 10, Pages 1, 13

Published in Print: November 3, 1999, as Pay Soars For Schools Chiefs In Big Districts
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