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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Top compensation varies

School administrator pay rates up to districts; differences not strongly linked to single factor

School administrator pay is not capped or regulated in Washington and it’s not consistent by student population or region, according to an analysis of statewide compensation records obtained by The Spokesman-Review.

Last year, for example, West Valley School District Superintendent Polly Crowley – who oversees a district with about 3,600 students – made about $12,000 more than Superintendent Nancy Stowell of Spokane Public Schools, the state’s third-largest district with about 28,100 students. Compensation for 21 Washington public school administrators exceeded that of the governor – $199,038 – in 2010, while 41 top school officials made more than the state’s K-12 superintendent, Randy Dorn. His total compensation was $146,751.

Superintendents overseeing similar-size districts in the same county can have salaries that vary by thousands of dollars. And the superintendent of the second-largest school district is not necessarily the second-highest paid in the state.

“Communities and school districts have asked for local control when it comes to schools – and in response, the state uses a formula to provide funding to every district to hire administration,” said Gov. Chris Gregoire. “It is then left up to each individual school district to decide how many administrators to hire and how much to pay those administrators.”

She added, “If the public doesn’t like the way their district is handling its administration funds, the public has the opportunity to change that.”

HB 2261, an education reform bill that became law earlier this year, could establish a pay scale for top school officials in Washington. The Compensation Technical Work Group, a committee of education and state leaders, started meeting this month and is charged with looking at all jobs in the K-12 education system.

“They will be setting more of a base salary structure (a minimum),” Chris Barron, a spokesman for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, wrote in an email. “The district could then add money to any job, hence local control.”

Barron added, “It’s too early to determine what the final recommendations for the working group will be. They could recommend a salary structure for superintendents for specific-sized school districts, but that doesn’t mean the Legislature would make that law. So, it’s a bit unknown until the working group’s final recommendations in June 2012.”

Only two states in the nation have capped superintendent pay: New Jersey and Minnesota, according to the American Association of School Administrators. The governor of New York proposed a similar cap this year, but it didn’t make it out of that state’s Legislature.

Minnesota subsequently dropped its salary cap “because they couldn’t recruit talented superintendents,” said Kitty Porterfield, spokeswoman for the American Association of School Administrators. Also, “senior staff was making more than superintendents,” she said.

New Jersey’s Legislature passed a law during the most recent session capping superintendent salaries at $175,000 annually – the same as the governor’s salary – with a downward-sliding scale for districts with smaller enrollments, according to news reports.

Unlike New Jersey, Washington residents put school district control in the hands of locally elected officials.

“The governor and the Legislature write a check to school districts each year, and that’s the only control they have,” said Karina Shagren, a spokeswoman for Gregoire’s office. “The governor certainly acknowledges that whoever is governor should have more control – that’s why she proposed creating a department of education this last legislative session.”

That proposal died before making it to a vote. Illustrating the uneven nature of school administration funding, the state will give West Valley $61,727 per administrator in 2011-’12, after imposing a 3 percent cut approved by the Legislature this spring. Spokane Public Schools, on the other hand, will get $56,246 per administrator from the state.

The salary schedule for administrators was established by the state in 1987 on a district-by-district basis using average pay per administrator per year, said Nathan Olson, a spokesman for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. From there, the allocation has gone up based on cost-of-living increases.

Three districts – Skykomish School District in King County, Harrington School District in Lincoln County and Columbia School District in Stevens County – receive a per-administrator allocation of about $84,200.

“One reason that there could be discrepancies is it’s possible that some districts had a higher mix of educated administrators than others” in 1987 when the baseline was set, Olson said. The remainder of administrative pay comes from voter-approved levies. For Spokane Public Schools, administrative pay – central administration, principals and assistant principals – represents 10.6 percent of the $56.9 million levy this year.

School officials say 10 percent of a levy going to administrative pay is average.

Experience, education not consistently compensated

School officials often compare their jobs to those of corporate executives; school districts operate with multimillion-dollar budgets and they’re major employers with clearly defined missions.

School boards, which determine superintendents’ compensation, use a similar method to that of corporations in determining top wages.

“In any industry, you do a survey of what other people are making in similar positions,” said Sue Chapin, Spokane Public Schools’ board president. “To have highly qualified people, you have to pay appropriately.”

Although school officials say experience and education factor into pay levels, they appear to be inconsistently applied.

For instance, both Crowley, in West Valley, and Stowell, in Spokane Public Schools, have doctoral degrees and 30-plus years of experience in education. Stowell has about nine more years of administrative experience than Crowley.

But Crowley’s total compensation in 2009-’10 was $241,577, which includes base salary, benefits and additional compensation, such as car allowance, phone, education and longevity. Stowell’s was $229,369 during the same cycle. (Final 2010-’11 data won’t be available until September.)

Larry Keller, Cheney Public Schools’ superintendent, has a student enrollment similar to West Valley but only five years’ experience in education and a master’s degree. His total compensation was $139,246 in 2009-’10 – about $90,000 less than Crowley’s.

Doug Matson, West Valley deputy superintendent, said one reason Crowley’s pay may be higher is she’s “the senior superintendent in Spokane County.”

She was hired as superintendent in 2005. Stowell and Keller were hired in 2008.

Regionally, Central Valley and Mead are the second- and third-largest districts, respectively, but superintendent pay in the districts doesn’t mirror that.

Ben Small, Central Valley School District’s top official, earned total compensation of $166,955 last year, while Mead’s Tom Rockefeller earned $206,579. Small has a master’s degree and 20 years’ experience in education, while Rockefeller has a doctorate and 32 years in the field.

Spokane Public Schools is the third-largest district in the state, but Stowell was not the third-highest-paid school leader in 2009-’10. Superintendents in the Kent, Lake Washington, Bellevue, Yakima, Renton and Vancouver school districts all made more.

Stowell said some of that might be explained away by cost of living: “I do understand that the cost of living on the West Side is a little different,” she said. “I do think that is a factor when you are considering salaries across the state.”

Superintendents can negotiate pay

Superintendents in any district have the opportunity to negotiate pay with board members.

Crowley personally negotiates her pay.

“It’s a very soft negotiation; it lasts about five minutes,” she said.

West Valley board chairman Robert Dompier defended Crowley’s pay, saying, “If you want a qualified superintendent, you have to do more than the minimum.”

Stowell doesn’t negotiate her salary; it’s set by the school board.

Since she was hired in 2008, her compensation with benefits has risen by about $3,000.

“The superintendent’s job is a big job,” board president Chapin said. “It’s really important. It’s not an 8 to 5 job. She’s paid well, but she does a very good job.”

However, unlike Spokane-area CEOs, who received an average raise of 18 percent in 2010 according to an analysis by the Journal of Business, the Legislature cut its allocation for administrator pay by 3 percent.

Crowley has accepted a pay cut of around $1,900, equivalent to the reduction in funds from the state for her pay.

Stowell’s contract is still being reviewed. She expects it will reflect a 3 percent pay cut like the rest of the administrators in the district. She said if the board offers her a pay increase, she won’t take it: “Right now with the economic difficulties that we are having across the state, I wouldn’t recommend that me or anyone else took more money.”