Should we care how much money charter school leaders make?

How much is too much when it comes to compensation of district superintendents and charter school administrators?  

In the last couple of months several newspapers have run front page stories on the compensation being paid school administrators in Ohio. In late September, the Cincinnati Enquirer ran a series of stories on what superintendents and treasurers in southwest Ohio and northern Kentucky were making, while just this past weekend the Dayton Daily News ran a story on the overall compensation paid a charter school administrator and her family to run seven schools in Ohio. And, the Youngstown Vindicator ran an editorial on Tuesday pointing out the insanity of the Youngstown City School District’s Cadillac health care plan for that fiscally and academically bankrupt district’s administrators and teachers.  I also sit on my local school district’s business advisory council and one of the thorniest issues the group grapples with is compensation of top school administrators. Talking money and compensation for public sector employees is a highly sensitive issue politically, especially since the economic downturn of 2008.

My basic view on matters of compensation is pretty straightforward: Highly effective superintendents and charter school operators deserve to be paid well as they work long hours and deal with myriad and complicated human, fiscal, academic, and political issues. I believe the same thing about great teachers. Pay them what they are worth. But, public sector employee compensation should be transparent (no hidden benefits or perks); and there should be a marketplace for talent. Let school districts and charter school operators compete openly for talent, and from this competition the market should help set the bar for compensation.

But, when it comes to the compensation and salary of public school officials – be they district or charter – there is also a political dynamic at play that board members and others who set school executive compensation need to understand and appreciate. In short, what will a community and taxpayers tolerate? ‘How much is too much’ is a question district school boards have to grapple with as they also have to help lead the case for school levies. Voters want to know how much the administration is making and whether they are worth it.

Here is what has been reported recently per district administrator compensation. In Ohio, the average superintendent’s pay grew 4.5 percent – from $98,637 to $103,093 – between 2008 and 2011. In addition, many superintendents have excellent benefits packages that include generously funded defined benefit pensions, topflight health care benefits for them and their families (and in some cased over-the-top benefits – see Youngstown Vindicator), and many have car/travel allowances. The Cincinnati Enquirer looked at the salaries of more than 130 superintendents in the Greater Cincinnati area and reported that “many top school executives received perks in compensation packages that most other educators don’t get. Further, as school districts struggle to compete for talent at the top, state salary databases show superintendents and treasurer take-home pay grew during the recession.” The Enquirer went on to report that in the Cincinnati metro area “superintendents averaged a 5 percent salary gain, from $117,140 for a typical superintendent to $123,008.”

After the Enquirer story there was public uproar about the pay and benefits provided local superintendents and top administrators. One blogger captured the reaction of many with his “Piggly Wiggly Oinker School Superintendents Are Getting Rich on Your Dime” post. In November voters in the Cincinnati metro-area rejected half the area school levies on the ballot. Many in public education saw this as yet again further evidence that school districts have to be highly sensitive to what they pay their top administrators, even the very best ones.

But, it isn’t just traditional school districts that need to worry about what they pay their top school administrators. Charter schools, as public schools that receive taxpayer dollars, also need to think carefully and clearly about what their leaders receive in compensation, and how this will be perceived in the larger community. This leads me to the recent story in the Dayton Daily News about charter schools. That paper ran a story on the compensation paid to a family running a charter management organization that serves about 2,000 kids in seven Ohio charters. The paper reported that “Tax records obtained by the Daily News show CEO Pammer-Satow received a base pay of $168,466 in 2010 along with a $60,000 bonus and other compensation valued at $25,573. Her husband, COO Clinton Satow, received a base pay of$126,000, bonus of $45,000 and $14,000 in other compensation.” Other members of the family are also employed by the management company in various capacities.

The Dayton Daily News reporter called me and asked for my reaction about “a couple making over $400,000 a year” to run seven charter schools in Ohio (they also run three schools in Florida through a private management company)? I said, “That’s tough to defend.” I also went on to comment, “at a minimum they are politically tone deaf to the realities of perception out in the community.” My comments have upset some charter school advocates who argue that as the schools perform well why should I or anyone else care what the leaders are paid? Why shouldn’t they be rewarded for starting schools that are proving to be successful, at least in comparison to their competitors? Isn’t the spirit behind charters to inject entrepreneurialism and business principles to education? Shouldn’t charter operators benefit from the fruits of their labor?

My reaction to these questions is that charter schools are only viable as long as they receive political support. All of public education is under the microscope and what is being spent on schools, and how the money is spent, is now supercharged territory. In this political environment where there is much talk about “doing more with less,” it is hard to defend families paying themselves more than $400,000 a year in public tax dollars to run a handful of charters. But, am I right? Should we care what charter leaders make?

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