Saturday, December 27, 2014

What's a Superintendent Worth?

Several years ago, in tight economic times, New Jersey's governor set salary limits for school superintendents.  The range was set at between $125,000 and $175,000, based on student enrollment up to 10,000 students.

New Jersey residents favored the plan by two-to-one.  New Jersey schools are funded largely by property taxes.  New Jersey property taxes are the highest in the nation.  Controlling costs seemed like a good idea.

Meanwhile, the governor of New York considered a similar action but did not move forward with it.

Now the chickens are coming home to roost.

In my suburban district, the 50-year-old superintendent is leaving after five years on the job.  His contract had delayed implementation of the new limit, although it did freeze his salary for four years. This year he is being paid $219,000; next year he would take a 24 percent pay cut and work for $167,500.  He's moving to a town in Pennsylvania to work for $215,000 plus some sort of 5 percent annuity program that I don't understand.

In the next town over, another well-regarded superintendent is retiring early, at age 59.  He had been paid $208,000 annually and was looking at a $177,500 salary in 2014-15.  So he's taking the helm at a school district in a New York suburb for $248,000; in addition he will collect a $123,000 pension from the state of New Jersey.

A number of other districts are losing superintendents to New York and Pennsylvania.

And, in another perverse result of the program, some school districts are paying assistant superintendents more than the men and women in the top jobs.

It is very difficult to manage school district costs in the best of times.  The major driver, 70 percent or more of the total budget, is employee pay, particularly teacher pay.

Teachers' contracts generally allow step increases for additional years on the job and post-graduate coursework.  To my knowledge, neither of these has been shown -- anywhere, ever -- to correlate with improvements in student achievement.

New Jersey's legislature has set a two-percent cap on school district funding increases each year.  School boards wishing to spend more must get voter approval.  This is squeezing schools, but, again, with the highest property taxes in the country (and perhaps the world), getting voters to agree to pay even more is a real challenge.

In fact, salaries for superintendents and school principals are a small part of district budgets. Paying good ones well is not a bad idea.  The best ones, like the best teachers, really do make a difference.

The salary cap lasts until 2016.  No one knows what will happen at that point, but until then, the talent drain is likely to continue.

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