Three years ago, Charles County School Superintendent James E. Richmond signed a four-year contract for his second term with a base salary of $150,000.

It didn't last long. Within six months, by July 2001, the Board of Education amended Richmond's contract to include a $20,000 raise.

The next year, the contract was amended again to ensure that Richmond's salary would increase by at least $25,000 per year for the term of the agreement.

Richmond's base salary now is $224,400, making him the third-highest-paid public schools superintendent in Maryland. His pay trails that of counterparts in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

On July 1, when the new budget year begins and new pay rates take effect for most school employees, Richmond's salary is scheduled to increase again, to $245,000, for the final year of his contract.

The Charles superintendent far outpaces his Southern Maryland counterparts in pay. Superintendent Patricia M. Richardson in St. Mary's County earns a base salary of $141,200, according to a contract amendment from last year. Calvert Superintendent J. Kenneth Horsmon makes $135,000, his contract said. Calvert and St. Mary's have enrollments smaller than that of Charles.

"You get what you pay for," said Charles Board of Education Chairman Kathy Levanduski. "If you want excellence, you have to pay for excellence."

Richmond became acting superintendent in Charles County in 1996 and has held the top spot ever since.

Last year he was named Maryland superintendent of the year. The Charles school system has produced regular increases in standardized test scores and enrollment in Advanced Placement classes during his tenure.

But the growing disparity between his salary and those of neighboring officials appears indicative of a pattern in Southern Maryland education.

Across the board in the upper tiers of school system administration -- the assistant superintendents and department directors -- Charles officials are paid more than corresponding officials in Calvert and St. Mary's, according to a review of salary data by The Washington Post.

For instance, Charles County Associate Superintendent Ronald G. Cunningham earned $149,000 this fiscal year, about $28,000 more than Deputy Superintendent R. Lorraine Fulton in St. Mary's County or Calvert Deputy Superintendent Jack R. Smith.

In all, seven school officials in Charles make more than Charles County government's highest-paid employee -- County Administrator Eugene Lauer, who earns $133,224, according to county figures.

The elected county commissioners approve the school system budget each year as a part of the overall county budget, but they do not set salaries for school employees. That is done by the Board of Education, whose members also are elected.

Charles County does have a larger school system than those in neighboring counties. For the school year that concludes this week, 25,610 students were enrolled in Charles, ranking the system 10th of 24 in the state. Enrollments were 17,423 students in Calvert and 16,261 in St. Mary's (ranked 12th and 14th, respectively).

Despite the size difference, Charles teachers generally earn less than teachers with comparable training and experience in St. Mary's and Calvert counties, according to data compiled for the 2003-04 school year by the Maryland State Department of Education.

The average salary for Charles County teachers was $47,044, putting the county 16th among 24 jurisdictions, below Calvert and St. Mary's, as well as the state average of $50,303, according to state figures. Calvert, with an average of $54,623, ranked second, behind Montgomery County, and St. Mary's ranked eighth, with an average of $49,219.

For the just-ending school year, Charles also ranked below Calvert and St. Mary's in minimum salaries for teachers with bachelor's degrees at "step 1" of the pay system and also in maximum salaries for teachers with master's degrees or doctorates, state figures show.

In the top category, the maximum salary for a teacher with a doctorate in Charles was $68,508 for the 2003-04 school year, about $16,000 less than in Calvert and $7,000 less than in St. Mary's, according to state figures.

"We're not paid well," said Meg MacDonald, the chief negotiator for the Education Association of Charles County, the teachers union.

But MacDonald said she would rather see the teachers' salaries rise in Charles than the salaries of top administrators decrease.

"For a school system this size, I don't think there are a huge number of people in the administration. I don't think there's more than we need. I don't think they're overpaid. I do think the people under them are underpaid," she said.

Last week Charles signed an agreement with the teachers union to provide a 3 percent cost of living raise for the coming school year. Richmond said he would prefer to pay teachers in Charles even more.

"If I had my way, I'd have the highest teaching salaries in the state," he said. Asked why they were not, he said, "That's an issue that comes over time. . . . I think you'll see it someday."

Richmond said it is important to compensate top administrators well because they frequently get recruited by other school systems. "The top people in central administration have experience and know-how. They're hard to get and retain," he said. "My goal was to get [their salaries] as high as I could get them."

During Richmond's tenure, starting in fiscal 1997, the percentage of the budget devoted to "administration" -- a category that excludes school-level administrators, such as principals -- has dropped from 3.3 percent of the overall budget to 2.9 percent for fiscal 2005.

However, over the same period the school system budget grew rapidly, so that the expenditure for administration in the upcoming fiscal year is to be $5.73 million, an increase of 52 percent from fiscal 1997, according to school system figures.

Richmond said his salary was raised to $93,000 when he became a superintendent. Now, in addition to his base salary, the Board of Education also provides him with an automobile and insurance or the option of an $8,000 after-tax vehicle allowance, with gas and maintenance paid for by the board, according to his contract.

He is allotted 90 days of leave each year, including sick days.

The Board of Education also provides an annual allowance of $5,000 that "can be used for un-reimbursed medical expenses or flexible spending account," according to the contract. In addition, the superintendent receives a tax-sheltered annuity of the "maximum amount allowed by the IRS code."

"It is more of a CEO-type position," Levanduski said. "I know the superintendent works 24-7."

Richmond said that he is proud of his accomplishments as a superintendent and that he does not apologize for his compensation.

"The board and the commissioners want to keep me," he said. "I think they're happy with my performance and want to make sure I'm satisfied."