Recruitment & Retention

Can Cushy Perks Keep Superintendents From Quitting?

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 04, 2022 7 min read
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What’s in a contract? Potentially, signs of how hiring and perks for district superintendents could change given the extreme pressures of the top job, which right now include shifts in masking policies, uproar over how race is taught, pressure to remove books from libraries, and spending a time-limited infusion of federal cash to boost learning.

The market for superintendents is increasingly tight, with fewer, greener applicants making up hiring pools. Turnover seems to be high. All but six of the 20 largest districts (by student enrollment numbers) have seen their top leader either leave or announce plans to leave in the last two years—about the same as in the previous five years combined, according to the nonprofit education consulting group ERS Strategies.

The effects are starting to show up in superintendent contracts.

“When boards are chasing after sitting superintendents, they’re willing to pay a high going rate, to buy annuities and invest in 403(b) plans, willing to give more vacation days, willing to buy life insurance,” said Glenn “Max” McGee, the CEO of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, which specializes in superintendent searches.

“Bigger mileage reimbursement numbers. Moving expenses. They’re not terribly novel, they’re just more,” McGee continued. “And of course, the salaries are higher, because people are shook up about leaving.”

Urban district hiring differs significantly from other locales, with boards able to attract a wide range of candidates from all over the country. Nevertheless, these contracts are a bellwether. They signal the type of provisions and perks that candidates increasingly may expect to negotiate over—and that boards will have to contemplate—if they want to attract a deeper bench of talent.

Education Week examined a handful of recently inked big-city contracts and generally found McGee’s predictions on point. And there some emerging signs that school boards are beginning to recognize in the contracts just how difficult the job is—and to build in incentives to keep superintendents longer, and happier.

Pay, benefits, and potentially security all on the table

Salaries. Some of the newly inked contracts come with eye-popping salaries, well beyond the $300K mark. Some of that reflects the relative size of the districts and pedigree of their leaders, but it likely also reflects the immense pressure of the job as districts—and the country—emerge from the pandemic.

In his high-profile new gig in Los Angeles, Antonio Carvalho will earn $440,000—nearly $100,000 more than what the prior superintendent, Austin Beutner, was making. Houston’s 2021 pick, Millard House II, will earn $350,000, about $5,000 more than either of his two immediate predecessors. Pedro Martinez, the new superintendent in Chicago will earn $340,000—a boost over the $300,000 Janice Jackson was making when she left the job.

Also earning more than $300,000 are Vickie Cartwright, the successor to Robert Runcie in Broward County, Fla.; Lisa Herring, the superintendent in Atlanta; and Jose Dotres, the newly selected superintendent in Miami-Dade.

Longer terms and longevity payments. In the Windy City, Martinez’ contract is for five years; Los Angeles offered Carvalho a four-year contract. Both are a year longer than their predecessors’ agreements, possibly signaling an interest in keeping them longer and ensuring continuity for staff and students.

Longevity is also a key feature in the most recent contract renewal for Kyla Johnson-Trammell, the Oakland, Calif., superintendent. The contract, inked in 2021, awards the superintendent bonus payments beginning at 5 percent of her salary that year and increasing by 1 percentage point in each subsequent year.

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Deferred compensation. It’s not unusual for boards to contribute to voluntary retirement plans like 403(b)s—essentially compensation that’s not taxed until it’s drawn down later, during retirement. Now some districts are making greater contributions, giving superintendents more control over how the plans are set up, or tying this benefit to longevity.

In Chicago, the board already picks up 7 percent of the superintendent’s required share of the city pension—the same as it currently does for teachers. But in addition, the board will pay a 10 percent match of Martinez’s salary into an additional defined-contribution plan. Broward County will match 7 percent of Cartwright’s salary into a similar plan.

In Oakland, the district put 20 percent of the state’s allowable maximum contributions for 2021 into such plans for Johnson-Trammell; for each year she stays, she will receive 10 percentage points over the previous year’s amount toward those goals. (Her predecessor, Antwan Wilson, received a flat 10 percent match of his salary each year.)

Life insurance. The Los Angeles board agreed to pay for an individual life insurance policy covering $1.5 million for Carvalho; his predecessor did not receive a life insurance benefit above what all employees in the district receive.

Superintendents in Broward County and Denver are furnished with life insurance contracts for $1 million, while in Denver, the board supplies Superintendent Marrero with $1,000 to purchase his own plan. And in Miami-Dade, the board will spend $6,000 for Dotres to select additional life and disability insurance plans.

Sabbaticals and wellness. Two novel contracts, in Oakland and Atlanta, are among the first to recognize and attempt to respond to the toll that the all-encompassing job can take on superintendents.

In Oakland, Johnson-Trammell now has the option of a three-month sabbatical between April and June of 2022. Such an option remains extremely rare among superintendents: The latest example in recent memory is Tom Boasburg, who took a six-month leave from the Denver district in 2015. (Marrero, the current superintendent, does not have a sabbatical provision in his contract.)

The rationale: “In recognition of the superintendent’s extremely demanding work schedule, during which she is required by job duties to work most evenings, weekends, and holidays, the board wishes to allow her extended leave time on an occasional basis,” according to the contract.

The board shall refrain from introducing any new resolutions that are not directly related to schools reopening ...

As to wellness, in December, the Atlanta school board gave Superintendent Herring 10 additional days off when it extended her contract, for a total of 30 days. The 10 new days “may be used as desired by the superintendent for personal wellness,” the contract reads.

Moving expenses. Schlepping from San Antonio to Chicago netted Martinez an additional $15,000 in his contract. The sticker price for Carvalho’s cross-country move? $50,000.

Jointly designed evaluation. In Los Angeles, Carvalho’s contract explicitly states that he’ll get to jointly design his annual evaluation instrument with the board.

Stipulations on board relations. When San Francisco Superintendent Vincent Matthews announced plans last year to retire, the school board asked him to stay one more year. The cost? A revision to his employment agreement that included an extraordinary clause proscribing certain board motions.

“Until students have returned to in-person learning for five full days a week, the board shall refrain from introducing any new resolutions that are not directly related to schools reopening for in-person learning, safety, and the budget,” the amended contract reads.

(Earlier this year, San Francisco residents recalled three of its school board members; more than 70 percent of voters approved of each removal, reflecting widespread frustration with the pace of school reopening and with what many felt were performative social-justice moves to rename schools.)

Security. While provisions on this issue didn’t show up in any of the contracts EdWeek reviewed, it’s something seasoned leaders predict will become increasingly common in the next few months and years, given the threats and abusive language many leaders have endured over the course of the pandemic.

In Guilford County, N.C., Superintendent Sharon Contreras exercised a contract clause guaranteeing her police protection after a right-wing disinformation site stuck a doctored video of her online and generated a firestorm of threats.

“I think that should be in every contract now,” she said. “I would love to say I thought of that, but it was in my predecessor’s contract. And it turned out that I needed it, and that so many superintendents didn’t have it—and were desperate for it during the pandemic.”

Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as Can Cushy Perks Keep Superintendents From Quitting?

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