This article originally appeared in the Carolina Journal on March 24, 2015.
Public school superintendents have been in the news lately, and it’s not been flattering.
Desperate to move on from the contentious tenure of Superintendent Katie McGee, the Brunswick County Board of Education hired Edward Pruden in 2010 at a salary of $159,400 a year. Late last year, the school board fired him and bought out the remainder of his contract at a cost of nearly $94,500.
Shortly after his departure, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction hired Pruden to be a school transformation coach at a salary of $57,000 for seven months. Ironically, Pruden failed to transform the Brunswick County Schools. Of the 18 schools that received performance grades, 11 earned C’s and four earned D’s.
Bill Harrison, former Cumberland County superintendent and chair of the N.C. State Board of Education, served as interim superintendent of Alamance-Burlington Schools until the district’s school board voted to offer Harrison the permanent position and a salary of $330,000 per year. He is the highest paid superintendent in the state and one of the highest paid public-sector employees in North Carolina.
Excluding University of North Carolina system and hospital employees, only state chief investment officer Kevin SigRist’s $351,000 salary is higher. Just as a point of comparison, SigRist manages the North Carolina Retirement Systems investment portfolio, which is approaching a $100 billion valuation. The Alamance-Burlington Schools budget was around $180 million last year.
The N.C. School Boards Association reports that five school districts currently have superintendent vacancies. Of the five, Orange County Schools has had a particularly difficult time retaining a superintendent. Patrick Rhodes, who had served as superintendent of Orange County Schools since 2007, retired in 2013. The school board hired former Wake County superintendent Del Burns to be an interim superintendent.
Burns’ replacement was the former superintendent of McDowell County Schools, Gerri Martin. She resigned after seven months on the job and subsequently received a severance payout of $100,000. The school board hired Burns again. This time around, he received a contract worth close to $300,000 to remain as interim superintendent until the board hires a permanent replacement. His total yearly pension income is $162,000.
A public school superintendent has a tough job. He or she is hired to manage a multimillion/billion-dollar operation consistent with the needs and dictates of the school board, parents, taxpayers, elected officials, government agencies, and — most importantly — children. At times, I suspect that most feel like Superintendent Gary Chalmers from “The Simpsons”: “I’m a public servant … I’m not allowed to use my own judgment in any way whatsoever!”
But like every profession, it has its fair share of problems. Two of the most notable are turnover and compensation. Turnover drives compensation, and compensation drives turnover.
A school board may feel compelled to pack a superintendent contract with creative perks in order to attract a candidate to their district. In August 2013, WRAL examined the contracts of all 115 public school superintendents in North Carolina. They found that, in addition to high salaries and generous benefits, superintendents also received numerous extras, including housing allowances, overtime pay, and contract buyouts. Often these add-ons were inserted into contracts at the behest of the chosen one. Desperate school board members are all too willing to play along.
At the same time, more attractive salaries and benefits give superintendents an incentive to make any stay a temporary one. There is no shortage of opportunities to move up the superintendent career ladder, given the relatively high turnover rates among larger and often wealthier school districts.
Indeed, it is no wonder that small, rural districts have a difficult time convincing exceptional (or even mediocre) superintendents to stay put. Rarely can those districts match the salaries and benefits offered by urban and suburban counterparts. In most cases, this means that positions in these districts merely serve as entry-level jobs. Simply put, superintendents tend to be nomads or, for you Star Wars fans, Tusken Raiders.
The pattern is remarkably consistent and has persisted for decades. The incoming superintendent starts by promising remarkable gains in student achievement, happy teachers, and satisfied parents. He or she spends a few years in the district executing his or her reform agenda (which is either recycled, rhetorical, or remarkably similar to the status quo) and moves on to a higher-paying gig in another district, an entity in need of a “connected” consultant, a state agency, or the holy grail — academia.
There are dozens of existing and aspiring superintendents ready to take his or her place. It is a process that works well for ambitious school administrators but takes a lasting toll on every member of the community, particularly public school parents, teachers, and children.
There are no ready-made solutions to the problem. Encouraging districts to hire nontraditional superintendents, that is, candidates from the private and nonprofit sectors, may dissuade districts from hiring career ladder superintendents.
More importantly, school boards should conduct their own superintendent searches, rather than contract with organizations and “head hunters” that appear to recycle establishment candidates. Perhaps there is an innovative and inspiring leader with a personal connection to the district who would be a better long-term fit than those recommended by a third party.