By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009
School superintendents in the Washington region work punishing hours as a rule, with duties that blur day and evening, week and weekend. Some ease the strain by getting away from the office -- far away, and often.
Records and interviews show that some school chiefs took nine, 10, even 12 weeks of paid leave in the last fiscal year for vacation, personal matters and professional travel to such destinations as Florida, Europe and Asia. That's on top of holidays and institutional days off, which are comparatively plentiful in public education.
Typically in the region, contracts allow five or six weeks of annual vacation as well as any reasonable amount of travel for professional growth.
Freedom to roam is a largely unnoticed perk enjoyed by some of the region's highest-paid local public officials, the records and interviews show.
Loudoun County Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III spent 49 weekdays from July 2007 through June 2008 traveling the nation and the world in pursuit of reinvigoration and professional growth. He visited Hartford, Conn., and Minneapolis in summer; Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Rome and Madrid in fall; Tampa in winter; and Los Angeles again and Beijing in spring.
In Madrid, Hatrick spoke about best practices in U.S. education at a conference of international school officials. In Beijing, he took a tour tailored to school systems, like Loudoun's, with nascent Chinese language programs.
"We're like everybody else: We need to be refreshed," said Hatrick, who is in his 18th year as superintendent, the longest tenure in the region. "We need to see a world beyond the parochial world in which we live."
Hatrick also took 11 days of vacation, for a total of 60 days of leave in 2007-08. He took more paid leave than any of the other 10 superintendents who responded in full to a Washington Post survey. Fairfax County Superintendent Jack D. Dale ranked second, with 51 days of leave. Prince William County Superintendent Steven L. Walts ranked third, with 46.
Dale spent two weeks in summer 2007 meeting with education leaders in Taiwan and in the South Korean city of Busan, whose Korea Science Academy has a partnership with Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Walts went to destinations including Phoenix; Rochester, N.Y.; Dallas; Orlando; and Tampa.
The 11 local superintendents surveyed took an average of 34 days of paid leave in the fiscal year that ended June 30, putting Montgomery County's Jerry D. Weast (33 days), Arlington County's Robert G. Smith (34) and Anne Arundel County's Kevin M. Maxwell (34) in the middle of the pack.
On average, the 11 leaders also took 13 holidays. Two others, former Prince George's County superintendent John E. Deasy and D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, provided records that were incomplete but which suggested that their business travel and other time away from the office followed the regional pattern.
School leaders occasionally draw criticism for travel. They and their critics diverge on this question: To effectively run a large school system, with dozens of schools and thousands of employees, how often is it necessary to be in the office?
To some extent, travel comes with the job, especially for prominent leaders who circulate at national conferences. "When you are superintendent of the 12th-largest school system in the country, you are expected to take a national leadership role in education," Dale said in an e-mail.
Schools chiefs say they keep in constant contact with the office, thanks to such tools as the BlackBerry. And of course, there is no evidence of a link between superintendent travel and student test scores.
Still, schools chiefs are among the highest-paid local public officials in the region. Counting salary and benefits, Hatrick's total compensation in the last school year was $341,530, Rhee's was $356,341, and Dale's was $421,395. Weast had the largest package among local superintendents: $489,763. With that kind of pay comes the expectation of being in the office and on task.
"Travel to places like Florida, in the dead of winter, somebody should think twice," said Lyda Astrove, a Montgomery parent. "I think that we've got enough issues right here at home."
The trips logged by the 11 superintendents cost their school systems, on average, $5,636 for the year. That's a modest sum but a convenient target for allegations of extravagance as school systems limit or freeze teacher salaries and other expenses.
Frequent travel also means a superintendent might not be in town when controversy or crisis strikes.
Dale was in San Francisco at a conference sponsored by Apple computer company on April 10 when the Fairfax School Board found itself on the defensive over a school system report that showed a racial achievement gap in education about moral character. Dale handled media questions by telephone.
Expect superintendents to travel less this year. Several school systems have forbidden or discouraged conference travel to save money. Weast said he would skip two major conferences in Florida this spring. St. Mary's County Superintendent Michael J. Martirano said he had already curtailed travel. He attended no national conference in 2007-08.
"I don't like to be out of my district," Martirano said. "I like to be present, and I like to be visible."
Hatrick said he routinely works from 8 in the morning to 10 or 11 at night. He said he also worked a full or partial weekend day about once a week in the 2007-08 school year.
"He's the hardest-working person I've ever met in 37 years," said Loudoun School Board Chairman Robert F. DuPree Jr. (Dulles). "When he is allegedly on vacation, visiting his grandchildren, he is e-mailing."
Dale said he worked 13 weekend days and many evenings in 2007-08. Fairfax School Board Chairman Daniel G. Storck (Mount Vernon) said, "Our School Board didn't hire Jack Dale for how well he punches a time clock."
Superintendents say attending conferences helps them keep pace with trends. Hatrick said that at seminars, he has buttonholed superintendents of other fast-growing school systems for ideas on how to handle Loudoun's enrollment surge.
"My question is always, 'What would you do different?' " he said.
Superintendents took some of their leave in summer, when schools are closed. Often, they travel in near-anonymity. But not always.
When Weast lunched with a government committee in Belfast in September, parents chronicled the event on a lengthy Internet log called Weast Watch -- even contacting the Northern Ireland government for details.
Rhee appeared at a news conference in Sacramento in November as a member of the transition team for then-Mayor-elect Kevin Johnson. The Sacramento Bee reported in December that she and Johnson "seemed inseparable," with Rhee visiting almost every other week. A January item in The Post's Reliable Source column linked them romantically. Some observers wondered how the leader of the troubled D.C. school system could find time to help Johnson's transition.
"It's not her job, and we're not paying her to do that," said Mary Lord, a D.C. State Education Board member.
Rhee took 29 days of personal leave and 15 days of official travel in the calendar year 2008. She declined to be interviewed.
Several superintendents from the Maryland suburbs traveled relatively infrequently, including Charles County's James E. Richmond, who nonetheless squeezed in six days in Stockholm for a conference and Nobel Peace Prize events.
Howard Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin, whose school system is comparable in size and prestige to Loudoun's, left Maryland only once on a business trip in the 2007-08 academic year.
"Some of these conferences," he said, "are not my style."
Staff writer Bill Turque contributed to this report.