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School administrators’ pay among highest in county

Even after salary cuts, three county districts have 133 officials who make more than $100,000 per year

Spokane-area public school administrators were not sheltered from the budget storm that howled across Washington last year.

An analysis of top administrators’ pay in the Spokane area’s three largest districts over a two-year period revealed that many took pay cuts, and the increases they did receive were comparable to those of frontline employees. In addition, any pay raises – for top leaders as well as teachers, in all districts – don’t reflect an increase in out-of-pocket health costs.

Nevertheless, public-school administrators remain among the county’s highest-paid public employees. Spokane, Mead and Central Valley school districts together have 133 administrators who earn more than $100,000 annually, according to records obtained by The Spokesman-Review.

Some observers say high pay is necessary to recruit and retain quality educational leadership.

“We’ve always understood the need for competitive salaries to draw experienced people,” said Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association, the state teachers union.

Others, however, say Washington’s public education system is too generous.

“We find that type of pay at many of our school districts across the state; that’s why we believe the state is top-heavy,” said Chris Cargill, Eastern Washington director of the Seattle-based Washington Policy Center, conservative-leaning think tank.

Reduction in paid days common

Among the 20 highest-paid administrators in Spokane Public Schools are the superintendent, assistant and associate superintendents, executive directors of learning programs, high school and middle school principals and the general manager of KSPS, which is owned by the district.

Base salaries, which do not include benefits, professional stipends or other compensation, range from around $104,000 to $175,500, according to the district.

Superintendent Nancy Stowell’s pay increased by just over 10 percent in the last two years, a period in which she was promoted from interim superintendent to superintendent, which accounts for much of the increase, said Staci Vesneske, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources. Her current pay of $175,500 reflects a two-day pay cut, an idea conceived of and imposed by the district’s top leaders.

Raises for the other administrators, such as principals and directors of learning programs, ranged from 3.6 percent to 9.91 percent over the same time period, which reflects a one-day pay cut. The bigger increases were based on years of service, according to the district’s pay-raise schedule. Stowell, who runs the second-largest district in the state, is the second-highest-paid superintendent in Washington.

Mead Superintendent Tom Rockefeller’s salary has increased by 5.11 percent, to $152,807, since 2007-’08, according to data provided by the district.

“He took the cost-of-living adjustment offered to teachers, which was lower than the classified employees,” said Kelly Shea, Mead’s executive director of human services. The principals took the lower cost-of-living increase as a way to save money. “That’s just a small concession we can make,” Shea said. Raises for the other administrators in the Mead district were 4.4 percent during the last two years.

Central Valley School District Superintendent Ben Small has a base pay of $145,000, records show. He was appointed to the position in 2008-’09. He elected not to take a raise this year.

In fact, said district spokeswoman Melanie Rose, “no one got raises this year.”

Increases for other administrators ranged from 3.37 percent to 7.56 percent.

Vesneske, of Spokane Public Schools, defended the administrators’ higher pay.

“If you look at other organizations that are our size, chief executive officers or managers of corporations, the people in our district who are administrators are paid fairly and competitively,” she said. “The same is true at the building level. Being a principal is a hard job.”

State Rep. Susan Fagan, R-Pullman, said she doesn’t consider superintendent or administrator pay to be excessive: “It’s necessary.”

Comparatively, teachers in the three school districts have seen pay increases ranging from 4.6 percent to 6.4 percent since 2007-’08, which reflects a one-day pay cut, school and union officials said. Most of the increase occurred in the first year of the two-year period.

‘State is top-heavy’

According to a report by the independent, nonprofit Educational Research Service, the average superintendent salary nationwide in 2008-’09 – the most recent data available – was $155,634 and deputy or associate superintendents were making an average of $136,832.

The Western states generally pay K-12 top leaders more than neighboring regions, the report said.

Leaders of the Washington Policy Center think the state has plenty of money for education, but that not enough is getting to the classrooms.

Of the money spent on public schools, 59 percent goes to classroom instruction, including teacher pay; the remainder is spent on expenses such as administration, special education, counseling, transportation, food and interest on debt, said Liv Finne, the center’s director of education.

Statewide, the number of school-district employees increased by 77 percent from 1971 to 2006, a policy center study found, while the number of students increased just 27 percent.

But that same study also showed that while the number of administrators per school – principals, assistant principals and counselors – rose 52 percent, the number of people in central administration – superintendents, deputy superintendents, and learning program directors – declined 26 percent.

Spokane, Mead and Central Valley school districts reflect that latter trend; all three districts have fewer top administrators than the state average, according to a report by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Said Vesneske, of Spokane Public Schools, “If you look at the budget reductions over the last couple years, it becomes clear that many of the cuts came from the central office.” Meanwhile, the state and the federal government haven’t let up on the duties required of those staffs, she said. “Curriculum standards, adherence to learning standards, graduation rate and adequate yearly progress – it takes people to address those issues. The fact that we’ve been able to address that with fewer people is impressive.”