By DAN CROWLEY
Monday, March 15, 2010
NORTHAMPTON - Even as school superintendents remain in high demand, most of those working in Hampshire County earn salaries well below the state average, though a few are creeping closer.
Former Amherst School Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez, who left his post abruptly last week, was the only area superintendent earning more than $150,000 in base salary, a Gazette survey finds.
In addition, he is one of about 60 of the commonwealth's 277 school superintendents who leave their posts each year, a turnover rate that prompts some districts to offer more attractive compensation packages, according to education experts.
"Supply and demand has certainly been changing the landscape," said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. "There are so few candidates out there compared to what there used to be. It's a pretty tough market right now."
Hampshire County is no exception to the revolving door for superintendents. Of 12 public school districts surveyed by the Gazette, four employ superintendents who have been on the job for a year or less. Two school districts have interim superintendents, while another two have superintendents retiring this year.
No current superintendent has remained on the job for a decade, though a few - Hadley School Superintendent Nicholas D. Young and Frontier Regional School District Superintendent Regina H. Nash - are close to that mark.
Many school administrators become superintendents near the end of their careers, so retirements are always a factor in job turnover. Others leave because they end up working with new school boards that did not hire them and wind up at odds over how to run a district.
But the job of school superintendent also has become increasingly complex and demanding in a state with a highly regulated education system, which is another reason fewer highly qualified candidates emerge in superintendent searches today.
"Accountability is a much bigger factor than it used to be and the superintendency makes a lot of demands on people's time," Scott said. "A lot of people say, #I don't want to be a 24/7 person and the subject of public comment or the target of a particular issue.' I say to superintendents all the time, #You're only as good as your last act.'"
Scott said superintendent searches often yield about 20 or so candidates and only a small number of these job-seekers come with strong credentials.
Raising the stakes
Today's job market may largely explain why Hadley school officials last month reached a new six-year contract with Young, their superintendent. It provides salary increases of 5 percent or more over the next several years.
Approved by a split vote, the pact boosts Young's current base salary from $126,649 to $147,735 by 2012.
Hadley's school district is among the smallest in the county, though Young's latest contract features several new financial incentives. Those provisions include three $6,000 longevity payments, a $2,000 tax-deferred annuity and a full payout of all unused, accumulated vacation time when the contract terminates.
As they hammered out the deal, Hadley School Committee Chairwoman Tracy Kelley said school officials were "putting something together that ensures (Young's) success and longevity."
Rewarding valued school superintendents with more attractive compensation packages is a common feature in today's market, particularly when cities and towns can afford to pay for top talent, say those involved in searches.
"When districts have the ability to pay with this significant shortage, they're in a better position to attract the best people," said Scott, of the state superintendents' association. "I watch this statewide, and I see places doing exactly what Hadley did."
Higher in Boston
For the most part, compensation packages for superintendents are lower west of Boston, where school districts tend to be larger. In Arlington, for example, the salary for a new superintendent has been posted at $155,000 to $175,000 and in Andover from $180,000 to $200,000.
But there is evidence to suggest superintendent salaries in some areas of the state are trending up.
East Longmeadow, a school district similar in size to some districts in the immediate area, is advertising a hiring salary for its next superintendent at $130,000 to $140,000.
"We are seeing the superintendents in the Connecticut Valley getting closer to the state average," said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.
The association consults on superintendent searches for hundreds of school districts in the state and recently provided technical assistance to Easthampton's superintendent search. The association will be working with Granby as that town begins a search later this year. It charges $8,500 for those services.
"In this era, school committees don't want to lose good superintendents," Koocher said. "Districts want to lock up good, stable leadership."
When Amherst school officials hired Rodriguez last year, they said they were aware of the controversy his $158,000 base salary might stir up, but noted it was a seller's market.
"Unfortunately, we cannot wish away the laws of supply and demand and ignore the realities of the labor market," school officials said in a statement.
Apart from Rodriguez, the former Amherst superintendent, only David Hopson, superintendent of the Gateway Regional School District, receives total compensation that exceeds $150,000.
Hopson earns a base salary of $147,329, but also receives a tax-deferred annuity of $4,205, which is a common feature in school superintendent compensation packages.
The lack of a tax-deferred annuity in Rodriguez's contract in Amherst may help explain his $158,000 base salary. The state's recent pension reform act removes tax-sheltered annuities, among other benefits, from retirement calculations after 2012.
"What will likely happen going forward is (superintendents) would prefer to have most of their compensation in salary form," Scott said. "That salary is the only thing that can now be counted in the calculation of retirement."
The average tax-deferred annuity, or contribution to a retirement plan, for school superintendents around the state exceeds $10,000 annually, a figure no superintendent in Hampshire County receives.
The average pay for superintendents in the state was in the $140,000 range last year and hovers around $150,000, according to organizations that track those figures.
Fewer than half of the county's school superintendents receive a tax-sheltered annuity in addition to their salaries. Those amounts range from $1,980 to $4,205.
Wish to 'show leadership'
At least one superintendent, Isabelina Rodriguez of the Northampton public schools, has voluntarily given up her $2,000 annuity payment and negotiated salary increases over two fiscal years, joining other city and school employees who were asked to make financial sacrifices to save jobs.
Arthur P. Apostolou, superintendent of Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, did the same by taking no salary increase in the current fiscal year.
"I just felt I needed to show leadership by saying I would start by not taking the negotiated salary increase," Rodriguez said of her decision to remain at $113,568.
Pay for superintendents in the Hampshire County region ranges from about $100,000 to $125,000, though at least two superintendents will move into the $130,000 range beginning in July, with Young in Hadley hitting $140,700 next year.
Apart from Alberto Rodriguez, whose contract with the Amherst regional schools provided a combined $30,000 in housing and travel stipends in the first two years of his contract, no other contract surveyed by the newspaper provides similar perks apart paying for college courses, use of a Blackberry, or paying for travel costs and expenses associated with professional development, the last of which is standard feature of superintendents' contracts.
The accrual and compensation for unused vacation and sick leave days varies from district to district. For most superintendents, the number of such days are capped with some receiving compensation for unused days and others waiving them.
Half the superintendent contracts surveyed allow administrators to do paid consulting work and a few provide disability and term life insurance policies.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.