‘Chop from the top’ in schools stirs debate
Cuomo calls for fewer managers to cut costs
CAPITAL REGION “Chop from the top” has been Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mantra as he claims that school districts are top-heavy with overpaid administrators.
But some education advocates say finding skilled people for the jobs requires that school districts pay what the market will bear.
The issue has come to the forefront as the governor proposes cutting school aid by $1.5 billion to help close a $10 billion budget deficit. Cuomo says schools can maintain educational programs with fewer managers.
Morris Peters, a spokesman for the state Division of the Budget, said, “I think part of the goal is to make sure that cuts don’t impact the classroom, and so the same way as every state agency is trying to cut the waste, we believe there to be some waste in school district finances.”
More than 40 percent of the state’s school superintendents have salary and benefit packages of more than $200,000, according to Peters. Several administrators on Long Island have pay topping $300,000, and the highest-paid superintendent in the state makes $386,000 plus $119,000 in benefits. More than 2,000 school administrators get paid at least $150,000.
Not many people in the state make that kind of money, outside of hedge fund managers on Wall Street, Peters said.
The average school superintendent in New York state is paid $163,000, which is just a little bit more than the national average of $160,000, according to the New York Council of School Superintendents.
State Education Department data show that the salaries of 36 superintendents in the Capital Region average nearly $152,000, with average benefits of more than $35,000. The numbers are on department’s website, www.p12.nysed.gov/mgtserv/admincomp.
School districts are required by law to submit the salaries and benefits of the superintendent and assistant or deputy superintendents, as well as any other administrators making more than a certain amount, $118,000 for 2010-11.
Niskayuna Superintendent Kevin Baughman’s salary, at $230,249, is the highest of those surveyed. Baughman, who is retiring at the end of the school year after nine years with the district, also receives a benefits package worth $42,933. Niskayuna, with an enrollment of 4,200 and an annual budget of nearly $77 million, is among the larger districts in the region.
The lowest among those surveyed is the $110,677 earned by Sharon Springs Superintendent Patterson Green, who since 2007 has led the district, which has about 330 students and an $8 million annual budget.
Locked into spending
Michael Moran, spokesman for The Business Council of New York State, asked, “Does every very small district need its own superintendent?”
By state law, they do.
Moran said this contributes to New York spending almost $16,000 per pupil — nearly 50 percent more than the national average.
“The private sector has had to find ways to trim payroll,” Moran said. “We have to do the same thing in our public sectors.”
In places like Virginia, there are countywide school districts.
Making such a change would he hard in New York, Moran said: “I think there is an entrenched educational bureaucracy, obviously very powerful unions who want to continue business as usual. The problem is business as usual is just unaffordable.”
Districts need more leverage in dealing with unions. The Triborough Amendment of the Taylor Law continues the terms of existing contracts including salary and benefits until new contracts are settled upon.
“It’s become almost impossible for local school boards to negotiate savings and lower labor costs,” he said. “We need to have more affordable pension plans for teachers and other public employees for new hires. We need to give school boards the ability to share services and consolidate administration.”
The Empire Center for New York State Policy supports a property tax cap to get school costs under control, as well as reforming pensions to increase employee contributions, according to Director Tim Hoefer. It also believes the Triborough Amendment should be eliminated.
According to Peters, salaries alone do not drive costs. In addition to the typical benefits like health care, some superintendents receive other compensation such as expenses and generous contributions to retirement plans.
Shenendehowa Superintendent of Schools L. Oliver Robinson, for example, receives $187,500 in salary and another $54,969 in benefits. The district pays for 89 percent of his health insurance premiums, 49 percent for dental insurance and 100 percent for a life insurance policy up to $350,000, according to his contract, available at the Seethroughny.net website.
Also, the district contributes $4,000 to a tax-sheltered annuity and gives him a $6,000 annual travel allowance. Robinson also receives 21 vacation days annually, which can be rolled over to a maximum of 42 and cashed out when he leaves the district.
Robinson also had 50 days of personal leave awarded to him when he became superintendent and has accumulated 20 additional days per year of his employment. These days cannot be carried over to another year.
Some have criticized the pay and benefits of superintendents as out of scale compared with the people in the communities they serve.
During a recent meeting to discuss the closure of two Schalmont district schools in Rotterdam, a resident pointed out that Superintendent Valerie Kelsey’s $158,016 salary is more than three times the average person’s in the district.
In their defense
In a later interview, Board of Education President Kevin Thompson defended Kelsey’s pay and said superintendents have a unique set of skills.
“If you can find a medical doctor to work for you for $40,000 a year, that would be desirable, but you have to pay a going rate based on the qualifications and candidates that you have,” he said.
Others agree with that assessment, saying superintendents run multimillion-dollar organizations with thousands of employees in some cases.
New York State School Boards Association spokesman David Albert said, “You have to offer salaries that are both commensurate with level of experience and expertise for the job and the competitive environment.”
Superintendents making more than $200,000 aren’t common in the Capital Region, but there are some in New York City and its suburbs.
Superintendents also have a high rate of turnover, with average tenure at 4.7 years, according to a Council of School Superintendents survey from 2009, the most recent data available. This is a decrease from five years in 2006 and 5.6 years in 2003.
“It’s a very demanding job with a high burnout rate,” Albert said.
Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York Council of School Superintendents, said he thinks Cuomo’s focus on high administrative salaries is a distraction from the real issue of the cutbacks school districts have experienced in the past few years. “This is a particularly difficult and thankless job, particularly in an environment like this,” he said.
New York school districts spend an average of 2 percent of their budget on central administration. Another 3 percent is spent on building administration such as principals and support staff, according to Lowry.
“I think schools by and large spend less on administration than most other entities,” he said.
The statewide average salary for a principal is $96,000, comparable to what a senior-level teacher makes in some districts, according to Michelle Hebert, spokeswoman for the School Administrators Association of New York State.
Hebert questioned whether experienced teachers would want to receive additional schooling and certification for a principal job that involves a tremendous increase in hours and responsibilities, often for not that much more money.
In suburban and rural districts, Lowry said superintendents wear many hats. They serve as the instructional leader, chief financial officer and personnel director. Larger, more affluent districts may have assistant superintendents performing those functions.
In addition, state and federal laws have imposed more requirements on districts, such as stricter financial audits. As part of the Race to the Top federal education reform package, teachers and principals will have to be evaluated more rigorously.
“That’s going to increase the need for spending on administration,” Lowry said.
Mohonasen Central School District Superintendent Kathleen Spring agreed that with all of the requirements and mandates implemented in the past 10 years, administrators are needed to make sure the district is in compliance.
Districts have to submit data to the state on everything from the number of high school graduates to students’ body mass statistics.
However, Mohonasen has kept its administrative staff relatively small. “A lot of our folks have taken on additional jobs,” Spring said.
Kelsey also believes Schalmont is lightly staffed.
“We had a director of curriculum that retired in August whose salary was over $100,000,” she said. “We did not fill that position; I absorbed that responsibility.”
There are no assistant principals or deans in any of the buildings.
Likewise, the Greater Johnstown School District superintendent used to have an assistant superintendent and a director of curriculum for elementary education, according to Superintendent Katherine Sullivan. As people have retired or left the district, they have not been replaced.
Looking for savings
In response to the fiscal crisis, some superintendents have frozen their salaries. Spring, who makes $158,593 at Mohonasen, last July deferred a scheduled pay increase for six months. Assistant Superintendent for Business Denise Swezey and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Patrick McGrath, who make $118,367 and $125,009, respectively, also deferred a 3.5 percent raise for half the year.
Fonda-Fultonville Superintendent James Hoffman is asking his school board to cut his salary by $7,500 to $131,000 — the level it was at in the 2008-09 year.
He said he wants to lead by example, given the district’s fiscal crisis. The governor is proposing to cut the district’s aid by $1.8 million.
“I’ve already gone to staff and told them without freezing everyone’s salary, we’re going to have massive layoffs,” he said.
More than 30 — 15 percent of the total staff — would have to lose their jobs, Hoffman said.
If all staff froze their pay, that would save the district about $525,000 but only plug one-third of the budget gap.
Hoffman said the district has toyed with the idea of cutting back administrators, such as having two principals for three buildings. However, it is not practical.
“One principal supervising 700, 800 kids doesn’t work,” he said.
Having a small staff is a disadvantage in planning. A larger district can hire someone just to focus on curriculum development. At Fonda-Fultonville, they do it in their “spare time,” Hoffman said.
“I’m a good administrator, I think. Am I am a curriculum expert in every content area? Certainly not,” he said.
There is also a wide range in the number of highly paid administrators even among school districts of similar size. Shenendehowa, considered to be an affluent district, has 12 administrators on the list totaling more than $1.6 million.
However, the Schenectady City School District only has 10 administrators making about $1.3 million, despite also having around about 10,000 students.
And the state numbers for the city district are no longer accurate. The state lists a $152,667 salary for an eliminated position, assistant superintendent for business. It also listed $189,899 for the superintendent, but that was what former Superintendent Eric Ely, who resigned last July, made. Interim Superintendent John Yagielski is being paid $170,000 with no health insurance or other benefits.
Schenectady is cutting more administrators, but not necessarily for financial reasons. The Board of Education voted recently to eliminate the positions of assistant superintendent for curriculum and assistant superintendent for operations. Those responsibilities are being reassigned to other administrators.
The plan will save about $275,000. But Yagielski proposed the move for efficiency, saying he wanted to give the building principals more flexibility to run their schools, rather than having to get approval from central administration.
Rather than focusing on administrator salaries, Lowry said Cuomo should eliminate or reduce state mandates that govern everything from special education services to technology education in middle school. The state should also increase employee contributions to pensions.
Outright consolidation of school districts should also be explored, Lowry said. Small districts have special challenges because there are so few students and that limits the schools’ ability to offer a full slate of courses.
“They’re at risk of not being able to provide a comprehensive education,” he said.
While mergers would save some money in eliminating superintendents’ jobs, it would not save a lot of money overall. Some school districts are so geographically spread out that outright consolidation may not be feasible, but a sharing of administrative functions and “back office” services like purchasing and payroll is possible, according to Lowry.