Gov. Andrew Cuomo picked on school superintendents' pay in his budget speech Feb. 1. Really, it's about time this issue was forced upon New Yorkers.
While administrators' pay is a relatively small part of the state's school spending, it is symbolic. People grow frustrated when they think of those who manage public funds getting more than their share.
Are they too high? That depends on your point of view.
The governor claims that 279 (more than 40 percent) of the superintendents of the state's 698 public school districts get salaries and benefits worth more than $200,000 each and that 2,000 school administrators get more than $150,000 in compensation. Those rates are out of line, considering what other public-sector leaders with more responsibilities make. Gov. Cuomo makes $175,000 and oversees thousands of workers and a 12-figure budget. As he said, there's no reason any school superintendent should make as much as he does.
Each superintendent in the four districts the Enterprise covers (Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake, Lake Placid and Keene) makes between $109,000 and $135,000 a year in wages. Factor in benefits, and some of them cross that $150,000 threshold. We see our local superintendents as devoted and high-quality public servants, but these salaries are pretty high given the cost of living around here.
Superintendents are paid so well largely because demand for them is high, but that's a structural flaw. Demand is high because there are so many school districts competing for superintendents.
Local school superintendents' wages
|Keene||Cynthia Ford-Johnston||$134,500 (2009-10)*|
|Saranac Lake||Gerald Goldman||$125,100 (2010-11)|
|Lake Placid||Randy Richards||$125,000 (2010-11)|
|Tupper Lake||Seth McGowan||$109,200 (2010-11)|
*Note: Ms. Ford-Johnston is also the de facto principal of Keene Central School.
In this case, demand is greater than need. Do the Elizabethtown-Lewis, AuSable Valley, Keene, Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, Long Lake, Newcomb, Indian Lake and Clifton-Fine districts each need a superintendent making $100,000 to $150,000? Most people would say no. It stands to reason that the quality of education would be just as good with a good principal in each school and a superintendent for an area the size of a county or a Board of Cooperative Educational Services district.
That's why many people have been calling to consolidate school districts. It's a good discussion to have, but practically, it's not going to happen easily. It would come with painful changes like closed schools, merged sports teams, lengthened bus rides and downsized faculty, and people are going to rebel against that.
Last year, there were distinct choices in the Lake Placid and Saranac Lake school board elections. In each, voters rejected candidates who wanted to look seriously at consolidation. We'll see if that trend continues, given the state budget crunch, but still, the people have spoken.
There is an easier solution, however, at least for now: Neighboring school districts could start sharing some staff members but keep schools, teams and faculties more or less the way they are. They could even share superintendents, as the Raquette Lake and Piseco districts did until Raquette Lake's shut down completely. State law doesn't prevent this; it says every district may - not must - have its own superintendent, according to Robert Lowry Jr., deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
Mr. Lowry's organization is not necessarily against sharing superintendents; it depends on the circumstances. For instance, "They do end up being accountable to two different boards, and how does that work as a practical matter?" he said. "Suppose one district is happy with the superintendent, and the other is still unsatisfied."
Likewise, he said, district consolidation or forming regional high schools might be a good move in some places and not in others.
"The experience with consolidations is that they do not save money up front," Lowry said, "but yet you have superintendents in large parts of upstate saying, 'We need to consolidate because we're running out of kids."
Predictably, Mr. Lowry said superintendents' pay does need to be higher than that of teachers and principals to encourage advancement.
"There does need to be some salary differential to get people to take on the additional hours, extra responsibilities and, in some situations, loss of tenure," he said.
Fair enough, but with yearly percentage raises, senior teachers are making so much that principals and superintendents have to go into six figures to top them. The wage race can get out of school boards' control.
Yes, it's unpaid local school board members, not anyone in Albany, who bear the responsibility here. It's worth noting that these volunteers often are not education or management professionals; once elected, they run the risk of leaning heavily on administrators for guidance. Therefore, they often see these administrators as being more valuable than the average taxpayer does.
It may be time for school boards in the entire Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES district to get together to talk seriously about sharing - perhaps superintendents, other district officials or high schools.
Lake Placid Central School District Superintendent Randy Richards said he doesn't think districts should share superintendents or reduce their pay, but he does think sharing other services is the answer. Districts have done some of this through BOCES, but "I think we're going to get more creative than we have in the past," he said.
Whatever gets shared, some people will probably lose their jobs. But under the current pattern, a larger number of teachers would be laid off, and that would mean larger classes, fewer course offerings and a worse education in general.
Maybe it's best to take some steps toward consolidation without going for it whole-hog. Then boards can see where it takes them and what future state budgets hold, and decide whether to go further, stay put or pull back.