Are Rock Star Superintendents Good for School?

In an era when schools are being forced to shrink their budgets to deal with state deficits, education analysts worry that students are being shortchanged. But for at least one breed of K-12 education professionals, funding shortfalls have not stopped schools from providing lavish salaries and benefits packages.

By Douglas Fehlen

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Compensation Levels Questioned

Superintendents have a difficult job. Even in the best of times, high-pressure decisions must be made about financial and economic matters that affect districts' long-term success. But now, as schools' funding is cut and their effectiveness questioned, it's an especially difficult time for top administrators. Education leaders are routinely blamed for systemic problems over which they may have only limited control.

While most people are willing to concede that being a school superintendent can come with a lot of challenging work and personal stress, many are sounding alarm bells over the level at which these professionals are being compensated. As schools slip further into the red and cut education programs for kids, some analysts insist it's time for a conversation about appropriate compensation levels for those at the top.

A Lucrative Position

Just how well are some high profile school superintendents doing financially? Melody Johnson, superintendent of Forth Worth, Texas, schools, earns about $325,000 annually. Gwinnett County School District in Georgia compensates superintendent Alvin Wilbanks with about $380,000 each year. And Arlene Ackerman, the current leader of Philadelphia schools, earns nearly $350,000 in base salary along with bonuses that put her compensation at or near the half million mark.

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Just why is it that school superintendents often receive such generous salaries? Analysts suggest that when it comes to hiring someone, schools want to make a splash by bringing in high-caliber talent with a reputation for results. Districts want to be seen as working to address chronic problems in schools, including poor student test scores and the achievement gap. That's not to mention that competition for talent is fierce - about 20% of districts are currently looking for superintendents, which bodes well for candidates' leverage during negotiations.

Looming Legislation

Those who argue that rock star superintendents deserve the compensation that the market currently provides view the job as extremely difficult and requiring a unique set of skills. Superintendents must not only have management acumen and education experience, but they must also possess a sense for politicking in the tricky work of balancing education priorities and public expectations for schools.

Others suggest that the high-stakes environment of school accountability ushered in by No Child Left Behind often puts superintendents under so much pressure that their skyrocketing salaries are not exorbitant, but justified. That opinion is often countered, though, by observers who point to other education professionals who are making sacrifices in the wake of budget shortfalls. Some governors are even threatening to pass legislation capping salaries so that more public dollars go to school facilities and students' education - and less goes into the pockets of top school officials.

Learn about the rise and fall of Cathleen Black, the former chancellor of New York City public schools who was recently replaced for being ineffective.

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