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Teaching Profession

New Expectations Make State Chiefs Hot Commodities

By Alan Richard — February 25, 2004 6 min read

How far is Arkansas willing to go in its search for an experienced, reputable leader for the state’s public schools?

One recent candidate for the state education director’s job is said to have had discussions that included a salary of about $240,000, a substantial bonus for staying a certain number of years, and possibly even a professor’s chair at a state university upon retirement.

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See the accompanying table, “Chiefs’ Salaries.”

Sources close to the negotiations say the package may have been worth a little more than $1 million over three years.

For states dealing with the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, budget pressures, and their own state-level reforms, such offers might be the wave of the future.

“This is a huge job, and it comes with all sorts of consequences,” said Patricia L. Sullivan, a deputy executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers.

Arkansas officials wouldn’t confirm the details of the state’s recent package that sources say was put together to lure Henry L. Johnson, the state education superintendent in Mississippi.

Even if the package was more modest, the offer still points to the high value of experienced state schools chiefs. Their weight with governors, legislatures, and the public may be greater than ever—especially in states such as Arkansas that are dealing with major changes in public schools.

Lisa Graham Keegan’s salary was about $82,500 when she left her job as Arizona’s elected state superintendent in 2001. But even Ms. Keegan, who is the chief executive officer of the Education Leaders Council, a Washington-based group that counts Mr. Johnson as a board member, said states can expect to pay a higher price for highly capable education leaders as their prominence rises.

“It’s no longer the kind of job for people who just want to kind of run the system as it is, and I think in the past that’s been possible,” Ms. Keegan said. “Apologists aren’t making it anymore.”

Told of the Arkansas offer and its rumored worth, Ms. Keegan said it would be a first—but not unwarranted.

“That’s probably what it’s going to take,” she said. “There’s not many people who can fit that bill.”

The Search Is On

About one-third of states elect their chief state school officers. The rest are appointed by governors, state education boards, or are hired by some combination of public bodies. Several states have changed or are considering a switch from elected leaders to appointed ones, largely as a byproduct of governors’ desire for more influence over public schools.

Salaries for many elected state superintendents remain below $150,000. But some of the states that hire their education chiefs are offering pay that rivals that for some big-city and large suburban-district superintendents, who have long benefited from a more competitive marketplace. Florida Commissioner of Education Jim Horne, for example, is appointed by the governor and earns about $232,000 a year.

The pay of appointed state chiefs varies, however, and sometimes is capped by state law.

Texas hired a former district-level superintendent, Shirley Neeley, as the state commissioner in January at a salary of nearly $165,000. Last fall, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson appointed Veronica C. Garcia as his education secretary, paying a salary of about $96,400.

West Virginia had planned to look for a new state superintendent earlier this month after David Stewart resigned. Then he reconsidered his departure after the state board that hired him provided a show of support. He is slated to meet again with state board next month.

The purported offer in Arkansas is additionally noteworthy because Gov. Mike Huckabee was involved directly in the recent talks over a new education director, who would be hired by the state board of education that he appoints. Arkansas needs a successor for Raymond J. Simon, who was recently confirmed as the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

Mr. Johnson in Mississippi was a top choice for the Arkansas job, several sources said.

In an interview, Mr. Johnson would not discuss the Arkansas job specifically. He confirmed, however, that he had spoken with the governor of the state that had offered him its job, and that he had told the governor he could not accept. He said he had expressed regret that the state had to search elsewhere, and hoped his decision would not hinder its recruitment efforts.

“There was an offer. I considered it seriously, and almost said yes,” Mr. Johnson said recently. He added that the salary offered by the state he talked with would have matched his current pay of about $240,000—the nation’s highest for a state schools chief.

Kenny Bush, a state board of education member in Mississippi, was relieved that his state superintendent was staying put.

“My understanding is that they were offering a better total package than what we had,” Mr. Bush said. “I understand the governor put together a nice package from the business community, ... which would also provide an opportunity for him to be some type of endowed professor.”

Mr. Johnson’s cachet can be traced largely to his experience, and to his popularity. But he also understands the growing challenges of the job.

He arrived less than two years ago as Mississippi’s first African-American schools chief since Reconstruction. As a longtime deputy state superintendent in North Carolina, Mr. Johnson helped craft that state’s influential set of school accountability programs and tools to help needy schools.

“One of the things that is happening is that with accountability and No Child Left Behind in particular, it’s producing greater and greater pressure on expert leadership,” Mr. Johnson said. (“Accountability the Main Goal for Miss. Superintendent,” June 18, 2003.)

“And I think states are recognizing the necessity to offer compensation packages that will” attract good candidates, he added.

The recent job offer ignited debate in the Mississippi legislature over his salary. Some lawmakers complained his salary was too high, while others claimed another state had offered Mr. Johnson substantially more. Legislators failed to pass any changes to laws that control the salary.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican elected in November, even complimented the state superintendent by name during his recent State of the State speech.

Mr. Bush, the state board member, said he understood Arkansas’ goals, though he declined to provide more details. “If I were in their shoes,” he said, “I would go after the best one in the country and see if I could get him.”

Immediate Timeline

Arkansas is still looking for a new leader for its state education department as it faces more than just the federal education law’s requirements. The state is under a court order to spend substantially more money on rural and minority-dominated schools. Lawmakers have responded with a plan to raise K-12 education spending by about $400 million a year. More court hearings on the case were scheduled for this week. (“As Arkansas Legislature Stalls, Court Takes Action,” Feb. 4, 2004.)

JoNell Caldwell, the state board chairwoman in Arkansas who is helping with the search for a schools chief, confirmed that Mr. Johnson had withdrawn his name from consideration on Jan. 24. She said the state board had not extended him any formal offer.

“Our timeline is immediate,” she said, for an education director who “has the knowledge to direct and lead the state as well as a heart for children.”

The state limits the director’s salary to $122,400, Ms. Caldwell said. Sources familiar with Mr. Johnson’s offer, though, said private business donors had offered incentives to exceed that cap.

“That has been our greatest detriment in our search,” Ms. Caldwell said of the salary limit. She added that state law requires the education director to have a background as a teacher and district-level superintendent.

“In the middle of reform efforts, we so need a directional leader,” she said.

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation.

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