Salaries, severance, and superintendents: Making compensation work for schools

superintendent salary

School district superintendents have one of the toughest jobs in the country.

Protecting and educating hundreds, often thousands, of young people is no easy feat—especially amidst shrinking budgets, competing stakeholder interests, and shifting local politics.

Those are among many reasons why the average superintendent tenure only lasts around three years.

To attract and keep top talent, school districts across the country are offering higher salaries. According to AASA, the median superintendent salary ranged from $91,000 to $229,000, depending on district size, in 2016. In larger districts, top salaries reached upwards of $400,000 annually.

In recent years, school boards have also added additional provisions to superintendent contracts to sweeten the deal—either through performance-based bonuses or generous retirement and severance packages.

For more on hiring and retaining great superintendents, read Why short superintendent tenure is killing our schools

Predictably, many of these packages have invited controversy.

Several recent high-profile cases highlight the delicate balance school boards and districts must strike when making a bid to attract and fairly compensate top-quality leadership.

Giving back to make a point

School district leaders also can play a role.

In a special board meeting this week, Tulsa, Okla., schools superintendent Deborah Gist announced that for the second year in a row she will donate a $25,000 performance-based bonus to a district endowment for teachers and students.

Due to state budget cuts, Tulsa faces a budget reduction of more than $11 million for the current fiscal year and an additional $12 million in 2017-2018, according to Tulsa World.

Gist told the board that in light of this “financial chaos,” she couldn’t in good conscience accept extra compensation:

“Our state is in a freefall. Our teachers have not earned a pay raise in nearly 10 years and their compensation is grossly out of proportion with the region and the country. As a result of that our state is hemorrhaging teachers…It feels like we have to be even more real than we have before with each other.”

Gist’s donation is immensely generous. It also shows how important it is for district superintendents to recognize the optics of their compensation, especially in times of fiscal restraint.

Controversy costs Howard County

Earlier this month, the Howard County Board of Education in Howard County, Md., agreed to pay $1.65 million in compensation over the next three years to convince Superintendent Renee Foose to retire from her position, the Baltimore Sun reports.

The decision came after a protracted legal dispute between Foose and members of the school board.

Amid mounting legal fees and increasing community unrest, the school board decided to cut its losses. The reaction to the decision has been mixed—from relief that the situation is over, to consternation over the high price of the compensation package (nearly five times her current salary), to outrage that the superintendent was let go at all.

As Paul Lemle, the president of the Howard County teachers union explained to the Baltimore Sun, “It is worth it because it lets the school system move forward now instead of in three years. But you know, it isn’t with any joy.”

Weighing the costs

Foose isn’t the first—and certainly won’t be the last—school district superintendent to receive a significant buyout after butting heads with her school board. Education Week recently profiled similar cases in Minnesota, Florida, and Missouri. In each case, superintendents were paid handsomely to leave their positions.

With every new example, the importance of a strong hiring process—and a solid separation agreement—becomes more evident.

As NSBA Executive Director and CEO Tom Gentzel tells Education Week:

“I think it’s always good advice for a school board—any board of directors or anybody who is hiring a CEO–to be thinking about the potential implications if things don’t work out. What are the potential cost implications?”

What is your district’s approach to school leader compensation? What steps, if any, do you take to include your community in those decisions? Tell us in the comments.

About the Author

Todd Kominiak
Todd is Managing Editor of TrustED. Email: tkominiak@k12insight.com.

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