- Wake superintendent’s new deal raises questions on salaries, terms
- Wake board tries to tie the hands of future boards
- The average NC school head’s salary is higher than the governor’s
In recent weeks the Wake County School Board unanimously approved an amendment to Superintendent Jim Merrill’s contract that would provide up to two years of severance pay – more than $560,000 – if he were to be fired before the end of his contract. The action raises two issues: how much school superintendents make and how accountable they are for their paychecks.
First, it’s hard to ignore the timing of the change, coming nine months before school board elections in which all nine seats on the Democratic-controlled school board are up for a vote. Does it mean superintendents should be above accountability from future school boards?
Wake Board of Education Chairman Tom Benton made this board’s motives clear when he recently told the (Raleigh) News & Observer:
We have been very pleased with [Merrill’s] performance since he’s been here. We think his work speaks for itself, but we’re entering a part of the political season where the entire board is up for re-election. We’re making sure that if a future board determines he needs to be released, it’s for cause.
Translation? “Merrill’s our guy. And if the people of Wake County choose a new board and go in a different direction, we don’t think that’s a very good idea. If you want to change superintendents, it’s going to cost taxpayers a lot of money – over half a million dollars.”
This isn’t the first time the Wake Board of Education has engaged in such shenanigans. In 2009, months before the election, the Democrat-controlled Wake County Board of Education sweetened Superintendent Del Burns’ contract by adding a provision requiring he be paid 18 months of severance pay if he were fired early.
Let me point out, none of this is illegal. In each case, the superintendent and the school board negotiated a provision added to the superintendent’s contract. The board approved it; everything was done above board.
But are such actions good public policy?
I don’t know when it’s ever good for one school board to tie the hands of future boards. In my view, the provision added to Merrill’s contract seeks to usurp the powers and responsibilities of duly elected individuals. It’s antidemocratic in the worst way. Maybe that’s why the North Carolina General Assembly traditionally cannot bind future General Assemblies.
School superintendents’ salaries soar
The other question the Merrill contract extension brings up is pay. Superintendents are among the highest paid state employees in North Carolina.
According to a 2013 WRAL review of superintendent contracts, the average superintendent in North Carolina made $156,000 in salary – not including perks – and oversaw a district of about 12,000 students. That average figure is nearly $14,000 a year more than the governor makes.
That’s the average, too. Some superintendent salaries are as high as $275,000 and $280,000.
Superintendents are responsible for ensuring students are learning and school districts run smoothly. No doubt these are important tasks. However, is the job really more important than that of the governor?
Superintendents argue their job is 24/7. They are often responsible for mobilizing thousands of employees to meet lofty goals. And along the way the job comes with its share of criticism. All these factors contribute to high salaries – and high turnover.
But don’t those same reasons argue for greater accountability?
That seemed to be what state Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) was thinking in 2013 when he saw lame duck Harnett County Commissioners and members of the Harnett County School Board approving contracts that would be difficult for newly elected board members to rescind. Lewis’ legislation – which later became law (S.L. 2014-6) – required that in the seven-month window prior to elections, all hiring and contract changes for a county manager or school superintendent require unanimous approval by their respective boards to be approved. Of course, such a law might not stop all abuses. But it’s a step in the right direction.
Let’s turn back to the question of pay.
Are high salaries justified?
High pay for superintendents alone should invite heightened public scrutiny – even more so when generous severance packages and perks are part of their compensation packages, and when compensation seemingly has little connection to job performance.
Superintendents’ pay seems to be based largely on the fact that they sit atop the educational pyramid. We know good teachers and principals impact student achievement. Since teachers and principals ultimately report to the superintendent, the superintendent must also have a big impact on student achievement, right?
Not necessarily. A Brookings Institute study of superintendents in Florida and North Carolina found scant evidence that an individual superintendent has much effect on a district’s academic performance. According to the full report:
Superintendents whose tenure is associated with sizable, statistically reliable changes in student achievement in the district in which they serve, controlling for the many other factors that affect student achievement, are quite rare. When district academic achievement improves or deteriorates, the superintendent is likely to be playing a part in an ensemble performance which the superintendent’s role could be filled successfully by many others. In the end, it is the system that promotes or hinders student achievement. Superintendents are largely indistinguishable.”
“School Superintendents: Vital or Irrelevant?”
Brookings Institute, September 2014
North Carolinians don’t begrudge high salaries. But there are too many examples of superintendents who fail to improve a district yet still collect big paychecks. They may even be fired from one job only to surface at another and pull in another big paycheck.
Jim Merrill has been superintendent of Wake County for almost three years. Over the last three years, SAT scores are flat and only 57 percent of students are deemed college or career ready. Most measures of academic progress fall in the fair to middling range. If parents or taxpayers are satisfied with the Wake Schools, why are students flocking in droves to private schools, home schooling and charter schools?
The Wake County School Board approved a raise of $12,397 (added to a base salary of $275,000) for Merrill last fall. Board officials said Merrill’s raise was based on his performance in meeting individual goals. Yet the school system declined to release just exactly what those goals are, saying they are part of an individual’s personnel file – which is not a public record. This is another worrisome development. We’re not asking for private information. We’re asking for more disclosure on goals that affect the entire district.
At the least, North Carolina needs to prohibit contract extensions that tie the hands of future school boards. Additionally, superintendent pay should be linked to job performance. If we had the two provisions, I seriously doubt we’d be having this discussion. Until there are changes, however, we need to keep asking the difficult questions.