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A Hidden Premium In School Chief Pay
With Candidates Few and Demands Many, Perks Swell

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The annual salary paid to Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of the Montgomery County schools, has increased just $4,892 since he took the job eight years ago.

Factor in his deferred compensation, however, and Weast's annual pay has risen by more than half. His compensation package now approaches half a million dollars.

Salary tells only part of the story. Total compensation to superintendents in the D.C. area, including benefits and perks, will average $350,078 this fiscal year. That is well beyond the $231,470 they will receive on average in salary, according to figures supplied by 13 school systems and state retirement officers.

Superintendent contracts in the region now routinely require school boards to direct tens of thousands of dollars each year into retirement accounts. Supplemental life and health insurance are commonly included, too. Some boards award superintendents several weeks of leave each year, much of which can be cashed in if unused. Superintendents in Fairfax County and Montgomery receive local pensions on top of their state benefits.

The perks, far more extensive than they were a decade or two ago, reflect a dilemma faced by school boards competing for superintendents, said John DeFlaminis, executive director of the Center for Educational Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania. School systems are wanting "to get the best person they can get, but not necessarily wanting to pay that in a publishable salary," he said. "So they'll try to hide a portion of it."

Pay and perks for superintendents have increased dramatically across the nation in recent years, driven by simple supply and demand. Experts say there is a dwindling pool of well-qualified superintendent candidates willing to endure the position's hours and pressure.

"Many people see it as a job you just wouldn't want to have," said Edgar B. Hatrick, superintendent of the Loudoun County schools. "We like to get our spouses together to convince them that we're not the only ones putting in 70 or 80 hours a week."

Hatrick was hired in 1991 at a salary of $87,000. His pay today is $226,564, and it's considered a bargain.

James E. Richmond, the superintendent in Charles County, oversees half the number of students that Hatrick does but receives $18,436 more. His salary has climbed from $100,000 to $245,000 in 10 years.

"The people who think I'm paid too much think I'm paid too much at $80,000," Richmond said. "It doesn't matter what I get."

Eleven of the 13 school administrators in the region will receive more than $200,000 in salary this year, more than any superintendent in the country received a decade ago.

Almost no one in education believes that superintendents are overpaid. They receive less than many private-school headmasters in the region, less than most local university presidents, far less than managers in the private sector with similar budgets and staffs. They tend to be the highest-paid public officials in their cities and counties, but they also command the largest operations.

Weast, for example, oversees a $2 billion operating budget, 21,840 employees, 1,275 buses and 200 school cafeterias that serve almost 10 million lunches a year. He is paid about $3.55 for each of the county's 138,000 students.

"Most of us are not only the biggest employer, we're the biggest restaurant, we're the biggest transportation system," Hatrick said. "You name it, and we're the biggest in the county."

But for the school boards that recruit and hire superintendents, salary is a perennial concern. There were fears of a backlash in 1999 when the Montgomery school board hired Weast for what was, at the time, a record sum in the region. There were similar worries this July when D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) offered Michelle A. Rhee $275,000, a salary surpassed by just one superintendent in the area, Jack D. Dale of Fairfax. Dale receives $279,340.

Superintendent salaries in the nation have increased by almost half in the past decade, according to the nonprofit group Educational Research Service. Schools chiefs, on average, received $141,191 in fiscal 2007. In school systems with at least 25,000 students, the average pay was $204,766. The Washington area school systems range in enrollment from 10,571 to 168,581.

Salaries have soared in a national bidding war for qualified candidates. Talented superintendents, comparatively plentiful 10 or 20 years ago, have left the field in droves for better-paying, lower-stress positions. They have been driven out by the demands of the No Child Left Behind law and by the increasingly shrill politics on school boards, an increasing number of which are filled by elections rather than appointments.

Over the past five years, superintendents in the District and Prince George's, Fairfax and Anne Arundel counties have left their jobs for something other than another superintendency or retirement.

"The pool of superintendents is much smaller than it's ever been before," DeFlaminis said. "And the pool of really good superintendents is even smaller."

Superintendents' tenures have declined from an average of 6.5 years in 2000 to 5.5 years in 2006, according to the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington County. The time it takes a school board to fill a vacancy has tripled in 10 years, from three months to an average of nine, said Paul Houston, the association's executive director.

"My first superintendency was Princeton, New Jersey, in 1977," Houston said. "They had 300 applications. When they filled the job a couple of years ago, they had between 15 and 20."

As a way to offset the sticker shock of escalating salaries, school boards and superintendents have increasingly turned to benefits and perks.

The biggest perk is deferred compensation, which will average $39,498 this year in the Washington region. Rebecca L. Perry of Alexandria will receive the least deferred pay this year, $10,000. Weast will receive the most, $151,698.

Superintendents and school boards say the point of the benefits is not to hide money but to provide for a superintendent's retirement. The volatility of the job makes it difficult to build tenure in state retirement systems. Weast, for example, served as a superintendent in Kansas, Montana, North Carolina and South Dakota before coming to Maryland.

"I don't call it a perk; I call it survival," said Frank Barham, executive director of the Virginia School Boards Association.

Weast's contract calls for his salary to rise annually by 3 percent plus inflation, an annual bump of 5 to 7 percent. Over the years, Weast has diverted almost all of the annual raise into a retirement fund, leaving his salary almost unchanged.

Weast's total compensation this year, including health and life insurance, payments for unused leave and expenses, and pension money invested on his behalf, is $489,763. That is well above the $421,395 package for Dale, who oversees the region's largest school system. It makes Weast one of the highest-paid superintendents in the country.

Stephen Abrams, a Montgomery school board member, said Weast's compensation "certainly raises some issues. The flip side to that is, did we get our money's worth? And my belief is that we have."

Weast has raised the school system's currency as a college-preparatory engine, despite rising poverty and language needs across the county.

Michael Knapp, the president of the County Council, said he does not consider Weast's compensation "out of balance." But he said the money diverted into deferred compensation "has the appearance," at least, "of being hidden."

Weast said in an e-mail that he chose to defer his pay raises into a retirement fund "to ensure that my family is taken care of."

Staff writer Maria Glod and researcher Karl Evanzz contributed to this report.

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