A handful of state legislatures this year are considering limits on how much school districts can pay their superintendents.
The legislation in Texas, Nebraska, and North Dakota reflects how district leaders’ pay is constantly under scrutiny. Proposals to cap their salaries pop up occasionally at the state level. But, they rarely gain enough traction to become law.
Proponents of such caps argue that there is bloat in districts’ administrative offices and capping district leaders’ salaries would allow school systems to redirect money to classrooms or teachers.
Opponents, meanwhile, argue the move doesn’t actually save much money, and any savings are outweighed by the cost of driving out qualified superintendents and discouraging promising candidates from applying for the jobs altogether.
Lawmakers’ attempts to insert themselves in decisions about administrators’ pay represent “a little bit of a state overreach” and can really hamstring districts’ efforts to land top-tier leaders in a competitive hiring market, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director of advocacy and governance for AASA, The School Superintendents Association.
“For example, if you have a district that’s really struggling and has a lot of superintendent turnover, and they’re really looking to bring in a candidate that can stay the course and offer some enduring stability, they might need to put their money where their mouth is and pay more to achieve that goal,” she said. “That should be at their discretion, and there should not be an arbitrary cap at the state level.”
School board members, elected by the people who reside within school district boundaries, are the ones who decide how much to pay their superintendent, so they should have discretion to set salaries at a level they think is appropriate, Ellerson Ng said.
Superintendents’ salaries vary by location, district size, and how much experience they have. The average superintendent salary in the United States is $156,468, according to AASA’s2022-23superintendent salary and benefits study, released March 10.
That average is down slightly from 2021-22, when superintendents earned $158,670 on average.
One state’s trial run
Proposals to limit superintendents’ pay vary in approach. Some cap salaries at a defined dollar figure while others set the limit at a particular percentage of the district’s budget. Others tie the cap to what teachers earn.
In 2011, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie set the maximum superintendent salary in the state at $175,000—his own salary. The Republican governor set a salary scale based on district enrollment. But the caps didn’t apply to the state’s 12 largest districts or heads of charter schools, special education schools, or vocational districts.
Christie later raised the maximum salary to $191,584 in 2017.
The state found that many superintendents left for district leadership jobs in nearby states while some districts got around the cap by awarding superintendents merit bonuses. By 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported, 10 of 43 districts in New York’s Westchester County were run by New Jersey superintendents who had left their jobs after the cap took effect.
While Christie said the salary cap would save the state $10 million, a Rutgers University-Camden professor’s study found the cap produced minimal savings and made superintendents 16 percent more likely to leave their positions.
Christie’s successor, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, signed legislation overturning the cap in his first term in 2019, and school boards almost immediately began increasing superintendent salaries.
Many school boards reportedly converted merit bonuses to base salary pay.
A New Jersey Department of Education spokesperson declined an interview request about the salary cap.
Ultimately, salary caps could prove more costly than beneficial, AASA’s Ellerson Ng said.
“You might see some savings in the short term, but you’re increasing the likelihood of quicker turnover and therefore increasing the costs incurred as your district navigates replacing staff, a long-term cost that far outweighs any perceived fiscal benefit,” she said.
Being superintendent ‘not tenable’ without competitive pay
A proposal in Texas would cap newly negotiated superintendents’ salaries at $153,750 (the annual pay for Gov. Greg Abbott), less than the national average. The proposal would also apply to any employee of a state or local government.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Brian Harrison, said in a press release that “state and local taxpayer-funded salaries have skyrocketed out of control.”
He continued: “No bureaucrat in Texas has more authority, staff, budget responsibility, or constituents than the governor of Texas. Bureaucrats should not get rich off the backs of hard-working Texans.”
If approved, the legislation would only apply to new contracts created after Sept. 1 of this year.
Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators, said he doesn’t expect the bill will gain much traction, but would compound the challenges of recruiting district leaders.
“I think right now we have a shortage of pretty much every position in the school district, from bus drivers and custodians to teachers and librarians and counselors, and certainly we see that in the administration world as well,” he said. “We ought to be talking about how we increase compensation across the board for people that are serving our children.”
It’s important to remember that school districts are often the largest employers in their communities, and district leaders have big jobs—not just managing staff, but ensuring the schools they oversee are effectively educating children and preparing them for the future, Brown said.
“They basically give their lives up to the community while they’re superintendents,” he said. “It’s a calling for people. They do it because they believe in it—they believe in the promise of public education. But they also need to be compensated for it. Otherwise, the job is not tenable for anybody.”
Nebraska and North Dakota propose superintendent pay caps
The proposal pending in Nebraska would not allow superintendents to make more than five times the salary of a new teacher in their district.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Dave Murman, said the proposal came in response to community members’ complaints that superintendent pay is too high, according to the Omaha World-Herald.
Spencer Head, president of the Omaha school board, which recently began a search for a new superintendent, said the bill would limit the pool of potential candidates.
In North Dakota, a bill that proposed capping superintendents’ salaries at 1.5 percent of the state and local tax revenue a district receives also would have required that districts with 475 students or fewer share a superintendent with another district.
The bill would have eliminated more than 60 district leadership jobs across the state, The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead reported.
The goal, lawmakers said, was to save money—up to $13 million—in administrative costs and redirect that money to teachers’ pay.
But the proposal was met with fierce backlash. Education advocates and superintendentssaid it was government overreach, could drive out effective leaders, and would deter promising candidates from applying for vacancies.
Nobody spoke in support of the bill at a January hearing, and the North Dakota House later killed it in a 90-0 vote.