Denise Amos reports:
After Ohio cut nearly $2 billion from public-school budgets over the last two years, districts throughout the state cut hundreds of teaching jobs and froze teacher salaries.
Many superintendents and treasurers also froze their salaries, sharing in the pain.
An Enquirer analysis of more than 130 superintendent and treasurer contracts in Greater Cincinnati, however, shows that many top school executives received perks in compensation packages that most other educators don’t receive and that many in private business don’t get. Further, as school districts struggle to compete for talent at the top, state salary databases show superintendent and treasurer take-home pay grew during the recession.
Among the Cincinnati area’s 49 school districts:
• At least 46 pay their superintendents’ contributions to the state retirement fund at a rate of 10 percent of his or her salary. Most teachers pay their own 10 percent contribution.
• At least 21 create and fund separate annuity accounts for their superintendents, contributing to them annually. Most teachers don’t have district-funded annuities.
• At least 24 pay superintendents’ Medicare taxes. Most teachers pay this tax through payroll deductions.
• At least 34 pay mileage or monthly car allowances for superintendents, 23 pay for or provide a cellphone and 10 provide a credit card for district business.
‘There’s a shortage of talent’
Experts in employment practices agree that superintendents – and, in Ohio, treasurers – have benefits in their contracts not usually found in private industry. They say that doesn’t mean these school leaders are overcompensated, though, even in a recession.
Districts must compete to attract and retain proven leaders, they said, because the number of superintendent positions is greater than the number of experienced, proven superintendents.
Since 2011, 15 Cincinnati-area districts have hired new superintendents, two others have appointed interims and one more, Winton Woods, announced last week it must replace Superintendent Camille Nasbe, who retires in December.
It’s a superintendent’s job market, experts say. “This is a competitive environment, and there’s a shortage of talent,” said Terry Ryan, vice president of Ohio Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Dayton.
Charles Kroncke, dean of the College of Mount St. Joseph’s business division, said the base salaries that superintendents in the Cincinnati region earn are lower than what similarly skilled executives or managers would earn at comparably sized, privately owned businesses. Many of the suburban district’s superintendents would probably earn two to three times more if they worked at similar-sized businesses or company divisions, he said after looking at the superintendent salary, number of employees and annual budget data for each Cincinnati-area district.
However, when some of the common superintendent’s benefits – such as full retirement funding, nearly complete health care coverage and help covering federal Medicare taxes – are added in, “these people receive pretty darn good benefits,” Kroncke said.
Retire-rehire draws controversy
Crystal Faulkner, a certified public accountant from Hyde Park who consults with businesses, said some of the superintendents’ fringe benefits aren’t offered in the business world. For instance, she said, few comparably sized private companies would fund all of their executives’ retirement or allow executives to retire, draw benefits and then return while earning a full salary.
Ohio and Kentucky – like many states – do allow public employees, including educators, to retire, draw on public pension benefits and return to work for a salary. Superintendents are the educators most likely to use that benefit, although some districts make the option available to a few other educators.
In Greater Cincinnati, at least 10 of the 49 superintendents were rehired by districts after retiring, gaining access to a regular salary and retirement benefits that often amount to about two-thirds of their pre-retirement earnings. In Northern Kentucky, at least two retired and rehired superintendents draw salaries as well as retirement benefits.
Supporters say this practice saves districts money because often retired-rehired superintendents work for less salary than a newly hired superintendent might seek. Three of the lowest-paid superintendents in the Cincinnati region are retired-rehired leaders.
Opponents of retire-rehire have long said it gives the appearance of double-dipping, which can cause some people, especially voters in Ohio school districts, to resist efforts to raise school tax levies.
Also, most Ohio superintendents’ contracts include a practice nicknamed “pickup on the pickup,” which means school districts pay all their superintendents’ and treasurers’ contributions to their state pension plan. The “pickup” amounts to about 10 percent of the amount of their total salary.
Such atypical benefits for top school positions irritate some voters and parents.
“That may be the rules of the game, but some of those rules are outstripping sanity,” said Jeff Kohls, a stay-at-home dad and blogger in Union Township, Clermont County.
“In a good economy, I don’t think most people would care how much these (perks) cost,” he said. “But when the chips are down and districts are starting to cut programs for students, you have to question whether this compensation model can continue.”
It’s a big job, supporters say
Other parents believe superintendents aren’t compensated well enough, especially given how many employees and students for whom they’re responsible and the increasing pressures to improve academics and finances for schools.
“They’re enormously responsible for the future of education,” said Pam Perrino, a Liberty Township parent of a Lakota sixth-grader. “Maintaining good employees and high academic standards for kids is a very, very big job…. The field of education needs to be supported by the public, and people need to appreciate the big task that they have.”
The districts who gave superintendents raises this year had also passed local school tax levies, state records show.
Across the country, the worst recession in 70 years hit public education hard beginning in 2008. School budgets crumbled as federal and state funding drew down and, in Ohio, as local taxpayers vetoed new school taxes.
Per-student spending fell below 2008 levels in 35 states, says the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a national think tank. Ohio spends nearly 8 percent less per student and Kentucky spends 8.5 percent less per student than in 2008, the group said in a recent study.
Districts from Cincinnati to Mason to West Clermont eliminated or left unfilled hundreds of teacher jobs in the past two years.
Unlike teachers, though, proven superintendents are not numerous enough to fill all the open superintendent jobs. Districts have to compete to attract and keep effective school leaders.
“There’s always room to cut (compensation), but you need to be careful with these people,” said Larry Johnson, dean of the University of Cincinnati’s College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services. “If you were running a business that size you’d make a lot more money. These are demanding jobs.”
‘Nothing sacred … anymore’
Last month, Ohio legislators passed changes to state public pensions which will result in educators’ contributing more from their paychecks for benefits that they’ll have to work longer to receive. This could increase the challenges to hold onto good superintendents, the Fordham Institute’s Ryan said.
“As public pension reforms kick in,… there are going to be a number of superintendents retiring, because staying on means they’re going to have less benefits downstream,” he said.
With less money, school boards must be creative about compensation to attract or keep good superintendents while not adding to a district’s bottom line, said Kathy LaSota, an Ohio School Boards Association consultant who works on superintendent searches.
“The (board) conversation seems to be around ‘What can we do differently? What can we offer that doesn’t come down to dollars and cents? What can be in the benefit package?’ ” she said.
For instance, fewer districts are providing superintendents with cars than a decade ago, LaSota said. Now they’re paying mileage or a monthly car allowance, dollar amounts that can be negotiated, she said.
“There is nothing sacred in terms of negotiating a compensation package for superintendents anymore,” she said. “Boards are considering everything to be negotiable.”
Superintendent pay raises nationwide haven’t been their typical 3 percent to 5 percent a year; instead they’ve been closer to 2 percent, said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Superintendents.
In Ohio, the average superintendent’s pay grew 4.5 percent – from $98,637 to $103,093 – from 2008 to 2011. In Southwest Ohio, superintendents averaged a 5 percent salary gain, from $117,140 for a typical superintendent to $123,008.
Kentucky’s average superintendent salaries grew 6.3 percent in that time, from $113,256 to $120,390. In Northern Kentucky, superintendent salaries grew 4 percent, from $121,876 to $126,462.
Getting what we pay for?
At least 21 superintendents in Southwest Ohio and five in Northern Kentucky said their salaries were frozen or unchanged from last year. Several said they also did not seek bonuses or put off scheduled pay raises.
Milford Superintendent Robert Farrell, for instance, has had no salary increase for three years. Loveland’s John Marschhausen decided to forgo a salary increase last year and this year. And Fairfield’s Paul Otten put off a raise in August.
“Superintendents understand that, when school boards freeze salaries for employees, that it also should include them,” said Gary Pack, Princeton’s superintendent, who, like his employees, is in a third year of a salary freeze.
To be sure, the average salary for Ohio teachers’ grew during the recession, too, by about 7 percent. But union officials say that’s in part because low-experienced teachers are usually the first to lose jobs in layoffs and budget cuts, while teachers with job security tend to be the highest compensated.
Ninety percent of union-negotiated teacher contracts in 2011 had salary freezes, most for this year and next, said Michele Prater, spokeswoman for the Ohio Education Association.
Perhaps, as in business, top school executives should have better compensation packages than teachers and other employees, Faulkner said.
“The important thing is,” she said, “are we taxpayers getting what we paid for?”
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