Perks boost pay, benefits of school superintendents

Updated April 01, 2016

Local school superintendents generally earn less than the national average in base salary, but many receive contract perks that far exceed their peers in other parts of the country, according to a Dayton Daily News analysis.

In the four-county Dayton area, only two of 20 superintendents of mid-sized school districts (2,500 to 9,999 students) exceed the national average base salary for that group. The average was $143,218 in 2014-15, according to a survey by the American Association of School Administrators.

>>> RELATED: Explore the details in contracts for 88 area superintendents

But superintendents in Montgomery, Greene, Warren and Miami counties fared well in other categories:

“From the outside, somebody might say, ‘Wow, he makes that much?’ ” said Mark North, the Lebanon superintendent who has been hired to take over Fairborn City Schools this summer. “But if they followed in our footsteps and understood, it’s a $40 million dollar budget, hundreds of staff members, a whole gamut of responsibilities …

“It’s a big job. I’ve had people who are CEOs in the business world say to me, ‘Mark, there’s no way I’d do your job.’ ”

Less than half of school superintendents nationwide are paid for unused sick and vacation leave, according to the AASA survey, but almost all local superintendents can claim that benefit, sometimes resulting in six-figure payouts upon retirement.

This newspaper recently uncovered Centerville City Schools’ violation of the state law governing unused vacation payout. District officials said they made a mistake, and Superintendent Tom Henderson said last week that he will repay the roughly $12,800 overpayment in full.

‘A big job’

Several educators and board members echoed North’s comparison to the Chief Executive Officer of a private sector company. Bellbrook’s Keith St. Pierre, in his 27th year as a superintendent, said the job requires someone who can handle education, politics, law, finances, marketing, food service, labor relations, facilities management and a busing operation, as well as team-building and personal relationships.

“Everything I’ve seen is that CEOs make far more (than school superintendents) and the job responsibilities are not near as diverse,” said St. Pierre, who got a raise to $115,319 last year. His salary had been frozen at $108,000 for a decade since he went through the retire/rehire process.

Chris Kershner of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce said his group has no broad data on Midwest CEO pay to use as a comparison for superintendents. But he said CEO pay is linked to profits and private business plans, while superintendents are under wider scrutiny because they manage public tax dollars.

Although many superintendent job descriptions don’t even mention tax levies, St. Pierre and Henderson both said getting voters to support those levies is a huge part of the job. But Henderson said the little things matter, too, adding that he helps human resources staff call in substitute teachers after arriving at 6:15 a.m. each day. He talked about the need to set a bar of high expectations for staff effort.

Northmont school board president Linda Blum agreed with that principle, saying the right superintendent “can make a huge, huge difference” in the quality of the school system. Northmont just went through the process of choosing Tony Thomas to succeed the outgoing Sarah Zatik as superintendent.

“I think (our contract) is fair if you do comparisons of superintendents,” Blum said. “They’re on duty 24/7. I wish we had the ability to pay them what we believe they’re truly worth as CEO,” she said, adding that there are no such thing as stock options for a superintendent.

Pay and perks

Base salaries tend to increase with the size of the district and the longevity of the superintendent, according to Tom Ash of the Buckeye Association of School Administrators (BASA). Locally, base pay ranges from $85,000 per year for Valley View Superintendent Rick Earley to $176,000 per year in the new contract recently signed by Mason’s Gail Kist-Kline.

But base salary doesn’t tell the whole story. Eaton Superintendent Barbara Curry has a base salary of $142,321, while Troy’s Eric Herman makes a comparable $140,582. But Herman’s contract also calls for a $10,000-per-year annuity and for the board to pay his pension contribution. Those two items add about $25,000 in annual value to Herman’s compensation, while Curry gets neither of those perks.

Superintendents and teachers are not part of the Social Security system, instead using a state pension system that relies on the school district to chip in 14 percent of the individual’s pay (on top of salary) and the employee to contribute 13 percent.

It has become extremely common for Ohio school districts to pay both the district and employee contributions for superintendents, as a fringe benefit often referred to as a “pickup.” Of the 48 contracts reviewed, only three superintendents — Huber Heights’ Sue Gunnell, Valley View’s Earley and Springboro’s Todd Petrey — join Eaton’s Curry in paying their own, full 13 percent contribution.

Many contracts also allow a superintendent to count the pension pickup amount as salary, boosting their eventual retirement benefits, which are based on final average salary.

Many districts use a model contract from BASA as their starting point, so there are several perks that are very common.

About 90 percent of local superintendents get a district-paid life insurance policy, with payouts ranging from $100,000 to a high of $500,000 for Lebanon’s North, with salary-times-two being a common payout formula.

In more than half of districts — including Kettering, Beavercreek and Miamisburg — the superintendent gets a 1.45 percent pay boost because the school board pays the superintendent’s share of the Medicare tax.

In 10 districts — including Dayton, Milton-Union and the Miami Valley Career Tech Center — the school board covers 100 percent of the superintendent’s health insurance premiums, rather than the 80-to-90 percent that is more common.

Some perks are rare. Vandalia-Butler Superintendent Brad Neavin’s contract allows him to accumulate travel points from the district’s credit card, up to a set limit. Lebanon’s North and Carlisle’s Larry Hook get board-paid family YMCA memberships. In northern Cincinnati, the contract for Great Oaks JVS Superintendent Harry Snyder calls for “an upgraded class automobile” for business and personal use, including board-paid gas, maintenance and insurance.

Centerville school board president Brad Evers said districts have to seek a balance.

“You have to secure someone who can do the complex and challenging job and do it well, every day,” Evers said. “You cannot get that for $50,000 per year. But we also can’t overpay. Since I’ve been on the board, we’ve tried to keep our superintendent’s compensation package in the middle.”

When trouble arises

There is some variation in the reasons a contract can be terminated. Most superintendent contracts list three options — mutual agreement; retirement, disability or death; or via the terms of state law, which refer to “good and just cause,” which is fairly vague.

Oakwood’s Kyle Ramey and a handful of other superintendents have language in their contracts allowing them to be fired for “gross inefficiency or immorality; for the willful and persistent violations of reasonable regulations of the board.”

North’s contract allows the Lebanon board to void his contract for “a valid criminal records report which, upon determination of the board, is unacceptable.” For Margaret Hess of the Warren County Career Center, failure to live within a member school district is “grounds for immediate termination.”

Middletown Superintendent Sam Ison’s contract was amended to allow either side to terminate the deal for any reason starting in 2017, with 120 days notice. Ash said that clause is very unusual, but he thought a court would likely uphold it, even though state law requires just cause.

Special situations

Ansonia and Mississinawa Valley — two 700-student school districts in Darke County — are the only ones in the area to share a superintendent. Jim Atchley is in his 12th year with Ansonia schools and third year of running neighboring Mississinawa Valley, with offices seven miles apart.

Atchley said the districts save money by sharing not only him but also a treasurer and technology coordinator. He said it works because the districts are small, with fewer schools and less hiring to do.

“If having the superintendent at most events is crucial, you can’t do it, and if there’s a crisis in both districts at once, that’s a problem,” Atchley said. “The only way it has worked is with good veteran principals in both districts and two school boards who were open to it.”

Dayton Public Schools’ Lori Ward is the only local superintendent with a “noncompete clause” in her contract, in this case dealing with charter schools. The language says for three years after termination of her contract, she cannot work for or consult with any charter or community school that operates within DPS boundaries.

The contract for Carlisle’s Hook calls for Hook to receive the same salary increase as the teachers union. Ash said BASA does not recommend that, because the superintendent often is a key part of the bargaining team. That setup could violate board policies on conflict of interest.

Some unique contract features are a little less serious. Item 17 of Miami East Superintendent Todd Rappold’s contract says his deal can be terminated for the usual reasons … or if he is offered the position of president or head football coach at Notre Dame.

“I am an Irish fan, and (former college football coaches) Lou Holtz and Ara Parseghian had that written into their contracts when they were at other schools, and I thought that was funny,” Rappold said. “Several years ago, we were pretty tight with our budget, and the board offered me a small raise, which I turned down. I asked the board in lieu of that raise, if we could put that clause into my contract instead.”

Making a difference

Some superintendents said there’s one way they’re very unlike CEOs. Rather than making a widget or product, their organizations spend every day in care of people’s most valuable asset — their children.

“It’s a big job, and I’ve never been one who’s shied away from working hard … but it’s a lot,” Henderson said. “Until you’re sitting in that seat, it’s hard to (grasp), because ultimately you’re responsible for everything.”

That sometimes leads to burnout. The AASA survey showed that only one-third of superintendents had stayed in their current position more than five years. Ash said just like in the private sector, it doesn’t serve an organization well if you’re changing CEOs every two or three years.

That leads some districts to increase salary and benefits to try to retain their leaders. Northmont’s Blum just went through that decision in hiring Tony Thomas as the new superintendent at a salary of $135,000 with solid benefits.

“We looked at what kind of bump can we give him, and what can we afford?” Blum said. “We were just on the ballot, and yes, it is very political. But we hold our head up high and feel good about what we do.

“We want to keep Tony. He’s going to be superintendent of our district, and I don’t want him to say in a couple of years, well, I could make more money someplace else.”