How Much Should School Superintendents Be Paid?

High-profile stories, such as the departure of Philadelphia's superintendent in August, have led to questions about what constitutes fair compensation for school administrators.
by | October 10, 2011

Should schools superintendents be reaping six-figure salaries? Attention-grabbing headlines and budget crunches in school districts nationwide have ignited a larger debate about fair compensation for school administrators and whether the current model is a sustainable one.

Arlene Ackerman, the former Philadelphia superintendent who was removed in August, received a $905,000 buyout on her way out, a bill that the city's school district will have to pay in its entirety just months after laying off more than 2,700 workers as part of an effort to close its $629 million budget deficit, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. An investigation by the Sacramento Bee this summer revealed that more than 5,000 former school employees were earning pensions of $100,000 or more in 2011, up from 700 in 2005. In Ohio, the Akron Beacon-Journal found one in four working superintendents collects, in addition to their regular salary, a pension from a previous job.

According to an Education Research Service survey, the average salary for a school superintendent in 2009-2010 is $159,634, up from $125,100 in 2007-2008. In urban districts with student populations of 25,000 or more, that figure jumps to more than $225,000. Every school district also has assistant superintendents and deputy superintendents in their central offices whose salaries almost always top $100,000.

Click here for interactive data on superintendent salaries

But while the numbers might appear gaudy, Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), argues superintendents essentially serve as CEO's for companies with budgets of millions or, in some cases, billions of dollars. Compared to peers in the private sector or even other government posts, their compensation is "fairly low" if one considers the resources that an effective superintendent can bring to their school district, Domenech tells Governing.

For example, Domenech served as the superintendent in Fairfax County until 2004, overseeing a budget of $2.4 billion while earning a $250,000 salary, which "is not even a rounding error" in a budget of that size, he says. He also points out that compensation varies depending on school district size and geographical region. The highly publicized salaries of Ackerman or other top education officers in major cities are "the exception, not the rule."

"It is market driven. Schools, depending on their resources and the revenue they have, will pay what they feel they can afford to pay to get the best person for the job," Domenech says. "To look at that kind of salary and say 'Oh my God, look at how much money they're making' is ridiculous when a private sector CEO running a $2.4 billion company would be making $10 million a year."

But what Domenech would deem a "market-driven" model, Chris Tessone, director of finance for the Fordham Institute, a reform-minded education policy think tank, calls an "arms race." He agrees that a successful superintendent is valuable to a school district, so it makes sense that proven candidates, particularly in urban settings, would warrant a big contract. But as a result, school districts are forced to sweeten contracts with additional compensation sources -- paid leave, travel budgets, etc. -- that result in "catastrophically stupid" contracts like the one that Arlene Ackerman benefitted from, Tessone tells Governing.

That kind of high-price bidding "isn't going to end well for kids," he explains, but there are also more cost-effective measures that school districts must begin to explore as their budgets tighten. Namely, school districts without the means to attract top-tier candidates should be playing so-called "moneyball," taken from a strategy by a professional baseball general manager who developed a system to recruit less expensive but equally effective players, Tessone says.

"You should be looking for lesser known candidates who are maybe not a rock star yet, but they're undervalued. They have real potential," Tessone says. "Then you invest the money that you've saved into programs that will impact kids. Good superintendents can be incredibly impactful, but you need more than one high-profile and powerful person to teach hundreds of thousands of kids in these big districts."

Pensions for school employees are also ripe for reform, Tessone says. High turnover leads to a small percentage of teachers and administrators who earn their pensions upon retirement receiving the benefits of contributions from other employees who have long since left the system "The system is essentially robbing young and mobile teachers to pay a small cohort... who stay in the same system for a whole career."

A variety of solutions exist to address the problems of the pension system, Tessone says, but he has a favorite: moving school employees to a system more akin to the 401k model used by private companies. Another suggestion is a "cash-balance plan," he says, which allows bodies such as pension boards to stay active. The money is still pooled together to yield better investment returns, but teachers who leave the system can take it with them.

There was one path forward on which Domenech and Tessone agreed: develop professional career paths for teachers who are interested in taking on administrative duties, but do so without immediately taking them out of the classroom. "You've got an amazing teacher who's reaching his or her students in really transformative ways, and the first thing you do when you realize that is you pull them out of the classroom," Tessone says.

That needs to change, Tessone says. At the lower level of district administrations, school leaders should be developing teacher leadership roles, he suggests. That allows educators to stay in the classroom a little longer while contributing to the district at a higher level.

"That helps the whole pay problem across the board," Tessone says. Those teachers can be compensated within the teacher pay model for their increased responsibilities without having to bump them up to an administrative salary. Plus, he says: "You've got a much bigger pipeline of folks being developed for leadership."

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