Education Funding

State Superintendents: What’s in Their Hiring Deals?

By Daarel Burnette II — August 29, 2017 4 min read
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There’s plenty more to state chiefs’ hiring agreements and contracts than just base pay. Those documents are chock-full of sweeteners and performance incentives, as well as hard-nosed details about duties and—in at least one case—the tacit suggestion that the superintendent needs to stay healthy.

An Education Week review of state superintendents’ contracts, offer letters, and benefits packages also provides insights into the evolving nature of state chiefs’ jobs in the Every Student Succeeds Act era and some of what’s needed to lure candidates. The review was part of a 51-state analysis of state superintendents’ salaries.

The vast majority of state chiefs serve “at will,” and their job duties and pay are dictated in state statutes, some of which haven’t been updated in years.

But, amid disputes among state school boards, legislatures, and governors over policy direction, at least 10 state boards have decided to outline in superintendents’ contracts and hiring letters broad definitions of the chiefs’ roles and tack on incentives that can attract top applicants. Longevity can be an issue. The average state chief now serves about two years due to the increasingly political and high-profile nature of the job.

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“If you can get the board and the chief on the same page at the beginning with a shared set of expectations, you can probably stretch out that tenure,” said Kristen Amundson, the president and CEO of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Explicit Goal-Setting

Some states’ contracts are explicit about goal-setting and rewards.

Ohio, for example, offers its state chief $20,000 in incentives to, among other goals, boost test scores and graduation rates.

Sweetening the Pot

In addition to their base pay, some of the nation’s 51 state superintendents receive incentive bonuses and perks as part of their employment packages and agreements. In some cases, agreements also go into greater detail about state chiefs’ duties and responsibilities. Among the highlights:

Georgia
Richard Woods receives $20,000 in travel allowance, more than double his predecessor’s travel allowance of $9,400.

Hawaii
Christina Kishimoto’s detailed contract provides for, among other things, a reserved parking spot, a car allowance, and incentive pay, with no specific dollar figures attached. Unlike the contracts for her two predecessors, it also spells out the competencies and primary responsibilities of the state chief. That includes building an understanding of “complex organizations and how to produce…educational reform” and “Hawaii’s culture and values.”

Kentucky
Stephen Pruitt’s contract requires a complete annual medical examination—and a letter to the board from his physician. The contract says the provision is due to the “unique nature” of the job and to assure the board that the commissioner has the “continued physical fitness” to perform his duties.

Louisiana
John White was originally promised in his 2012 contract with the state that, if he gets a positive evaluation each year, he will get a 6 percent pay increase. But months later, the board and White amended the contract so that he only gets the pay increase if state employees and the state’s public school teachers also get a raise. He has never received the raise.

Maryland
Karen Salmon can get up to $35,400 in incentive pay if she boosts graduation rates and test scores, closes the state’s achievement gaps, and improves the state’s juvenile schools.

Ohio
Paolo DeMaria is set to receive a performance bonus of $20,000 next month for his “leadership, communication and policy making” in his first year in office.

Source: Education Week

Maryland chief Karen Salmon is eligible for up to $35,000 in incentives—15 percent of her pay—for boosting the state’s graduation rate, closing achievement gaps, and improving thestate’s juvenile-detention center.

But Salmon has taken issue with those provisions since taking the job last year.

“I’ve asked for them not to award me that money,” Salmon said. Instead, she said, she should be provided incentives on the success of policy implementation, such as the state’s new accountability system and assuring that local districts follow state law. “I don’t think I can directly impact academics in local districts. I can’t wave a magic wand over the state and everything all of a sudden gets better.”

Hitting the Road

In other states, superintendents are provided hefty travel allowances.

Georgia’s state superintendent, Richard Woods, for example, gets a $20,000 annual car allowance to visit with the state’s 181 districts. It’s a reflection of the traveling and community outreach he’s expected to do according to the state constitution.

Superintendent contracts in some states have taken center stage in recent months as state chiefs institute controversial policies and as state board members and politicians move to oust them.

Louisiana Superintendent John White is under fire from recently elected Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards for turning in an accountability plan to the U.S. Department of Education that many of the state’s district superintendents and principals disagree with. Last month, Edwards said that he thought White is serving in his job illegally and will consider suing. In order to continue in the job, the governor said White also must be reconfirmed by the Louisiana Senate.

White’s contract provides for a $275,000 salary and annual 6 percent raises if the state’s teachers also get a raise (an amendment added by the board months after White’s hiring in 2012).

The contract also says that at its expiration, White will serve on a month-to-month basis, a clause many of White’s opponents, and now the governor, have taken issue with. The board isat a standstill on whether to hire a new chief or renew White’s contract.

Meanwhile in Alabama last month, the state board of education, using a clause in its contract with the superintendent, sprang a surprise evaluation on Michael Sentance, barely a year into the chief’s job, after district superintendents complained about his leadership style and policy direction.

“I have traveled all over the state to visit schools and colleges and talk with educators about their perspectives and concerns,” Sentence said in a statement earlier this month. “My schedule is sometimes taxing, and I cannot make all the events that I may want to do. Such is the nature of public life. But I try to reach out and talk—and perhaps, more importantly, listen.”

Copious Detail

Hawaii provided a contract to its new chief, Christina Kishimoto, that is 11 pages long. That compares with a contract that was just four pages under former chief Kathryn Matayoshi.

The new contract details an arbitration process in cases of disputes with the board, allows for incentive packages of an unspecified amount, provides for a reserved parking spot, and lists dozens of what the state superintendent’s priorities should be in the coming years.

That includes building an understanding of “complex organizations and how to produce ... educational reform” and “Hawaii’s culture and values.”

But contracts are not all about duties and compensation. In one of the more unusual provisions, Kentucky’s state chief, Stephen Pruitt, is subject to an annual medical examination because of the “unique nature” of the job. The wording is blunt.

“The board shall be notified in writing by the examining physician whether the commissioner continues to have the continued physical fitness to perform his duties,” the contract says. “And this notification shall be confidential.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2017 edition of Education Week as Hiring Deals Include More Than Base Pay

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