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Public education still pays for most school leaders

By   /   August 31, 2011  /   No Comments


How many make more than the governor?

By Alissa Smith and M.D. Kittle Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — John Knight said he didn’t get into education for the money.

The superintendent of the Drummond Area School District, a 400-student public school system in the far northern Wisconsin community of Bayfield, this year is expected to make an arguably comfortable salary of $96,000.

But he has to work five jobs to earn his pay.

This past school year, Knight earned $19,050 as superintendent. He also served as the district’s director of pupil services, director of transport and director of food services and technology coordinator and principal of Drummond Elementary School. All positions combined will net Knight’s $96,000 salary.

This jack-of-many-educational-trades earned nearly the same salary as the previous district administrator, whose sole position was superintendent.

As a superintendent, his salary last school year was the lowest pay of any top executive in Wisconsin’s 424 public school districts, according a Wisconsin Reporter analysis of state Department of Public Instruction, or DPI, salary data.

“In a small district, you wear a multitude of hats, and in any given day, you might bandage a skinned knee at 10 a.m., counsel a kid at noon and do some state reporting from 1 to 3,” Knight said.

Times are tough all around. School districts, like many other areas of government, are facing deep budget cuts — to the tune of $800 million — as Wisconsin moves to right its fiscal ship. The private sector, too, in the hangover of recession, has had to fight the battle of declining revenue and rising expenses.

“Because of our geographic location and the physical areas, we’ve gone the route of, instead of sharing one superintendent for two districts, they’re having one person serve up and down the administration,” Knight said.

“As revenues have become much more precious to districts, especially in small, rural districts, boards have looked for ways to save costs,” Knight said. “I may be stretched a little thinner… compared to my fellows, but I have a number of peers that are also principals.”

But all chief executive salaries in Wisconsin public schools were not created equal in the 2010-11 school year, according to the most recent data available. The 2011-12 school year salary information won’t be available until mid-fall, said DPI spokesman Patrick Gaspar.

Top pay

Gregory Thornton, superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, earned $265,000 last school year, a nearly $100,000 salary increase from the former superintendent’s salary in 2009-10. He is the highest paid school administrator in Wisconsin.

Thornton last year earned $145,000 more than Wisconsin State Superintendent Tony Evers, whose salary was $119,652.

Thornton presided over a $1.35 billion budget in 2011, and some 80,000 students.

Evers’ salary this year, is $120,111, a figure decided by the Legislature. The state superintendent is responsible for more than 500 employees and a $6.4 billion budget, the vast majority of which is state aid to public schools, with about $100 million going to administrative functions.

Thornton, the Milwaukee superintendent earned more than $120,000 more than the governor will make this year, and nearly $190,000 more than the lieutenant governor. The governor earns $144,000 annually and the lieutenant governor earns $76,000 annually.

Thornton’s salary, however, will remain locked in through May 26, 2014, under his existing contract with the district, said Lynne Sobczak, director and board clerk for the Milwaukee Office ofBoard Governance for Milwaukee Public Schools.

By comparison, St. Louis Public School’s superintendent Kelvin Adams earned $225,004 last year.

Thornton did not return several phone calls from Wisconsin Reporter.

Madison Metropolitan Schools Superintendent Daniel Narad was the only other top administrator posting a salary north of $200,000, at $201,438. That was up less than $2,000 from the 2009-10 school year.

Narad did not return phone calls from Wisconsin Reporter.

The top five highest paid superintendents earned $180,000 or better, but those salaries remained mainly flat during the past two years.

Question of benefits

Salaries are just part of the total compensation package. Wisconsin’s superintendents pulled down a combined $15.3 million in benefits, mostly health insurance and pensions, in the 2010-11 school year.

Thornton added $77,398 in benefits to his total compensation package, the most generous in Wisconsin’s public school system.

Smaller districts boasted more competitive benefits packages than some of the largest school systems in the state. Stephen Murley, superintendent of the Wausau School District, for instance, received nearly $63,000 in benefits compensation. He earned $154,463 in base salary.

On the other end of the spectrum is Ashwaubenon School District Superintendent David Schmidt, whose benefits package was in the $9,500 range.

One superintendent, Betty Lang of Oshkosh, earned $106,000 in base salary with no benefits.

Superintendent salaries and benefits are set at the district level.

“All of that is done locally. They make the decision on what to pay their administrators,” DPI’s Gaspar said.

Pension is a significant portion of the total compensation package.

“They are not state employees, but they are allowed by state law to participate in the state retirement fund,” Gaspar said.

Those administrators are subject to the same contribution increases under the Legislature’s ACT 10, which requires public employees to pay 5.8 percent of their salaries to the Wisconsin Retirement System, and 12.5 percent to health-care premiums, once their existing contracts expires.

Milwaukee Public Schools was forced to lay off more than 500 employees this summer, including more than 350 teachers. Thornton said the district could have saved 200 teaching jobs and $20 million had the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association agreed to the pension contributions.

The layoffs represented around 5 percent of the district’s full-time employees, and directly tied, Thornton said, to $84 million in cuts to state aid.

Drummond Area Schools’ Knight said despite all the turmoil and change, he believes Wisconsin’s public schools systems will thrive.

“Wisconsin has always prided itself on the quality of its education system and we will survive,” he said.

See the full Department of Public Instruction superintendent salary database at WisconsinReporter.com

Top Five Superintendent Salaries in 2010-11

1. Milwaukee Public Schools, Gregory Thornton $265,000

2. Madison Metropolitan, Daniel Nerad $201,438

3. Kenosha Public Schools, Michele Hancock $195,000

4. Green Bay Public Area, Gregory Maass $186,000

5. Racine Unified, James Shaw $180,000

Lowest Five Superintendent Salaries in 2010-11

1. Drummond Area School District, John Knight $19,050

2. Juda, Phillip Updike $19,708.25

3. Paris, Roger Gahart, $23,625

4. Kansasville Elementary, Giles Williams $24,000

5. Port Edwards, Patricia Sullivan $25,020.50