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Curve busters: Retirement pay is rising for top Tri-State superintendents

I-Team examines contracts for 20 largest districts
Posted: 5:00 AM, Aug 20, 2019
Updated: 2019-08-21 01:09:21-04
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CINCNNATI — Corporate shareholders wouldn’t think twice about providing the right CEO with a fancy car, expense account and super-sized retirement plan.

But the people who vote for school levies have a reputation for frugality. How many taxpayers would sign off on such perks for the people who run their local school district?

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Tim Ackerman, superintendent, Kings Local School District

“These are very difficult jobs,” said Tim Ackerman, superintendent of Kings Local School District. “Superintendents are CEOs of multimillion-dollar companies, except we’re dealing with the most precious asset: Children. Superintendents work very hard, long hours, long time away from their families. And there’s not a lot of people around that want to do it. I think the compensation meets the job requirements.”

Ackerman isn’t the only one who thinks so.

“Based upon the demands of the job, the experience that’s needed and the skills needed, superintendents are much less compensated then their business equivalents,” said John Concannon, a retired attorney who negotiated 20 years of superintendent contracts for school districts in Cincinnati and Dayton.

But that doesn’t mean superintendents work cheap.

The I-Team compared superintendent contracts in the region's 20 largest school districts to gauge the total cost of base salaries, retirement benefits and perquisites like auto allowances, expense accounts and performance incentives. We found these contracts produce an average base salary of $164,304 for superintendents, not including items like health coverage and travel expenses, which are often required by contracts but not quantified in the documents.

We also found that many local superintendents are getting a double dose of retirement benefits - annuities plus pension plans - that most of their national counterparts do not.

The average superintendent in this group gets at least 36 paid days off per year, including vacation, sick time, holidays and professional leave. Nine of the 20 can sell back some of their unused vacation time each year as a way of boosting pay.

Another thing that’s clear from our research: There is an arms race developing in this thin slice of the labor market. School districts are finding it tougher to land top talent thanks to a dwindling supply of candidates willing to take on the challenge.

“The pool is smaller than it was 12 years ago,” said Eve Bolton, a Cincinnati Public Schools board member since 2008. “The demands are so great. The competition for time and effort and the best expertise is very, very strong.”

Bolton said Cincinnati was lucky to find homegrown talent in Laura Mitchell, who joined CPS as a teacher in 1993 and worked as a principal and deputy superintendent before rising to the top job in 2017.

“It’s like the Reds,” she said. “This is a small market team. We have to grow our own just like the Reds have to kind of grown their own. We cannot spend money to have somebody build their career with us. That’s not good for the district. So, the pool is already limited. We’re limited more because it’s a small market. We’re limited more because we don’t want to be a stepping stone.”

Superintendents are keenly aware of these factors. Like any job seeker, they keep track of how their peers are paid. So, it’s common for a perk adopted by one district to be copied by others.

“When I started this all anybody got was a salary,” Concannon said. “Then we started things like automobile allowances coming in. And it’s kind of gone from there.”

‘How many teachers get that?’
Annuity payments are catching on as a beloved benefit for local school bosses, the I-Team found. Concannon said annuity benefits didn’t exist in local contracts a decade ago. Now, 14 of the top 20 superintendents have annual annuity benefits averaging $15,235.

This bucks a national trend, according to a 2018 compensation survey by the Association of American School Administrators. It found 63 percent of superintendents had no annuity benefits and fewer than 9 percent had annuity contributions greater than $10,000.

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Greg Lawson, research fellow, The Buckeye Institute

“That’s something that might raise a few questions,” said Greg Lawson, research fellow with the Buckeye Institute, a Columbus-based think tank that tracks public-employee salaries.

Lawson said superintendents already have access to excellent retirement benefits through the State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio. Many school districts enhance those benefits by paying the superintendent’s share of pension contributions. The I-Team found 12 of the 14 districts that provide annuity benefits for superintendents also pick up that employee payment.

“How many teachers get that?" Lawson said. "How many of the other employees in the district get it? The answer is probably not that many."

The Kings Local School District paid $24,665 for Ackerman’s STRS pension in his most recent contract year which ended July 31, including his $5,499 employee contribution, according to records provided by the district. On top of that, the district paid $5,743 toward Ackerman’s annuity, said Cary Furniss, the district’s treasurer.

Ackerman also has a retention benefit that contributes 4 percent of his base salary toward an annuity contribution that he won’t receive unless he stays with the district until the contract ends in 2024.

Ackerman said his compensation goal was to be “near what the going market was of superintendents in the area.” Kings Local is the 18th largest district in the Tri-State by enrollment. Ackerman ranks 14th in the I-Team’s analysis with a base salary of $153,797. His annuity benefit is the 9th biggest at $12,304, based his newest contract which started in August.

“I didn’t come to Kings to get the best contract,” Ackerman said. “I came because it was a great district and I wanted to work here.”

‘There are limits’
By some measures, the pay plans of local superintendents are right in line with state and national peers. For example, the AASA’s 2018 compensation survey found the median base salary was $167,444 for 288 male superintendents who ran districts of less than 10,000 students. The local median pay for comparably sized districts was $151,899.

For larger districts, the local median of $195,000 was 4.4 percent below the AASA survey results for 67 districts with enrollment between 10,000 and 25,000 students.

Districts in Boone and Kenton counties, which rank third and fifth in statewide enrollment, also rank third and sixth in superintendent salary, according to data compiled by the Kentucky Department of Education.

Even the superintendent with the Tri-State's highest base salary looks like a bargain compared to peers in Columbus and Cleveland.

Cincinnati’s contract with Laura Mitchell includes a base salary of $240,000, which ranks first in our region is within $2,000 of her peers in Columbus and Cleveland. But Mitchell has no annuity and no incentives for retention or relocation. Her annual performance bonus of $5,000 is much smaller than Cleveland’s maximum bonus of $25,000. In Columbus, it’s 16 percent of total pay, or $38,720.

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Eve Bolton, Cincinnati Board of Education

“Actually, the search team told us our range was too low to attract some of the folks that they thought would be gettable. We actually made it lower and said, ‘Well, that’s as far as we can go.’” Bolton said. “There are limits financially to what you can put together both form a standpoint of fiscal responsibility and also political profile and public opinion.”

Boone County Superintendent Randy Poe said taxpayers should take into account the complexity of his job before judging his pay plan. Poe oversees a budget of about $200 million and operates 24 schools where nearly 21,000 students speak over 50 languages. Those students can work toward college credits or pursue job training through the Ignite Institute , a workforce development initiative that the district announced in 2017.

“If I was running an outside corporation of the same magnitude my pay scale would be tremendous,” Poe said. “But we didn't get into the profession for that. We got into it to help others.”

The fine print
Superintendent contracts are public records that spell out salary, benefits and working conditions for school district administrators. But they don’t provide a complete picture of what it actually costs to keep a superintendent employed.

Poe’s contract is a good example. Signed in 2015 and amended with a one-year extension in 2016, the 8-page document calls for a $215,000 base salary that can be increased by board action annually. It also requires an annual annuity payment equal to 15 percent of Poe’s total salary in addition to the district’s payment of Poe’s employee contribution to the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System. Poe also gets an “unmarked car” to drive and the district pays for his memberships to trade groups and civic organizations while reimbursing Poe for tuition and professional training. Finally, the contract requires health, dental and cancer coverage similar to what other district employees receive.

None of these costs are spelled out in the document but the district provided a detailed accounting at the I-Team’s request. The total cost of Poe’s contract for the 2018 budget year was $317,066. That’s 47 percent more than the base pay listed in his contract.

The Kings Local district reported a total cost of $210,039 for Tim Ackerman’s contract including all benefits. That’s 36 percent higher than the base pay disclosed in the document.

Cincinnati Public Schools said the total cost of its contract with Laura Mitchell is $284,600, or 18.5 percent more than her base pay of $240,000. But the district doesn’t include Mitchell’s expense account in that calculation, which would increase the annual total by $7,200. And it doesn’t provide an estimate for what it costs the district to provide health, dental, vision and insurance coverage to Mitchell, whose contract requires a $1 million life insurance policy.

Cars, phones and raffle tickets
The AASA provides a list of fringe benefits commonly offered to superintendents, including reimbursement of tuition and fees to attend conferences. About a third of superintendents have contract provisions that allow them to work as consultants while 30 percent have district-paid liability insurance. Here is a look at some of the more interesting perks the I-Team found in its review of local contracts:

Free rides – Nine superintendents get monthly allowances for car payments and seven more get reimbursed for work-related mileage. Boone County Superintendent Poe drives a district-owned Ford Explorer. CPS pays Superintendent Mitchell a $500 monthly stipend that can be used for car payments or expenses. Covington’s Alvin Garrison has the biggest auto allowance at $750 per month. He said he uses the money for mileage and fuel, not car payments.

Free phones – Seven superintendents get some combination of cell phones, data plans, laptops and other technology tools. Most contracts don’t quantify the cost of that service. Of those that do, the Northwest Local School District has the richest benefit: $100 a month.

Free knowledge – Six superintendents have tuition-reimbursement benefits that allow them to take up to 9 semester hours of college courses per year. Middletown Superintendent Marlon Styles can spend up to $5,000 per year on “professional development seminars, conferences and meetings at the local, state and national level.”

Styles said he uses the money to bring innovative educational approaches to Middletown through its partnership with the League of Innovative Schools. That's a national organization that uses data-driven learning tools to improve the classroom experience.

"We're getting a great return on our investment," Styles said.

Club dues – Eighteen superintendents get their memberships paid to professional and civic organizations. Most contracts don’t specify an amount the district is willing to spend, but Boone County’s board of education approved memberships in June and August totaling more than $16,000 in dues, meeting minutes show. Lebanon Superintendent Todd Yohey gets a family membership to the Countryside YMCA. The district says the perk is worth $947 annually.

"With the strong relationship between Lebanon Schools and Countryside Y, the board of education has a desire for its superintendent to belong to the Y and participate in Y activities," Yohey wrote in an email to WCPO. "I have also taken an active role in leadership at the Y as part of the executive board."

All expenses paid – Three superintendents have relocation benefits in their contracts, while three others have expense accounts. The biggest belongs to Marlon Styles in Middletown. He was offered $10,000 in relocation expenses plus a $20,000 retirement boost if he moved his permanent residence to the district. Styles said he hasn't relocated so he never got the incentive payments. The most interesting expense account belongs to Oak Hills Superintendent Jeffrey Brandt. He gets up to $2,000 a year for “district-related community items (i.e. stag tickets, raffle tickets, memberships, donations, etc.)”

Brandt said he's never used more than $1,300 from his expense account, which he uses to pay for golf outings and fundraising dinners where he networks with Oak Hills alumni and West Side business leaders.

"I don't use it for raffles," he said. "All those groups give back to our kids."

WCPO attempted to reach all superintendents named in this story.

School boards should keep the average taxpayer in mind when they approve unusual perks, said Leslie Paige, vice president of policy and communications for Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington, DC -based watchdog group.

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Leslie Paige, vice president, Citizens Against Government Waste

“Most taxpayers would agree that up to a $750 car payment is excessive,” Paige said. “There should be some caps on that and rational limits on what they can subsidize.”

Paige said school boards should be transparent about the pay plans they’re awarding and be cognizant of the broader impact of their decisions.

“There isn’t a blank check here,” she said. “There is not an unlimited pool of money. You can’t always go in for a raise. There can’t always be a nonstop increase in the rates of pay and there can’t be a nonstop package of perks that continually grow. It’s just not feasible.”