Clearing up some misunderstandings of the superintendency

The superintendency is probably one of the least understood jobs in education.

“Learning Leadership” column, May 2011 issue of eSchool News—I became a superintendent at the age of 32. By that time I had received my doctorate from Hofstra University in education research, and I remember one of my psychology professors telling the class of would-be superintendents that we were not paranoid if we thought somebody was coming after us.

I have learned over the years that my old professor was right, and that paranoia is a very useful skill for superintendents to hone. So today, with education under attack—with salaries, pensions, and benefits coming under scrutiny, and governors proposing caps on the salaries of superintendents—we are not being paranoid; they really are after us.

The superintendency is probably one of the least understood jobs in education. Few people know what a superintendent does. My friends used to think that, because I was in education, I had off summers and all of the days when school was closed. They also thought that my hours were the same as the school day. The reality is that superintendents are on 24-7, which makes sense when you consider that they bear total responsibility for everything that happens in the school district.

The average day tends to run 12 hours, extending into evening meetings and events. Weekends consist of sporting events, plays, and other school or community-related ceremonies. I lost count of the number of times I received a call in the middle of the night, causing me to get dressed and go to the scene of a fire, a break-in, or—worst of all—the scene of a tragic accident where students or staff members were involved. And of course, there are the winter storms mornings when superintendents are up at three in the morning, analyzing data to determine if schools will be closed or not—a decision that is often criticized and applauded at the same time by different elements of the school community.

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I often receive phone calls from reporters wanting to know why superintendents are paid so much more than teachers. In the “Salaries and Wages Paid Professional and Support Personnel in Public Schools, 2009-2010,” published by Educational Research Service, the mean salary for a school superintendent is reported as $159,634. The mean salary for a highly paid classroom teacher (90th percentile) is reported as $94,135. That is a significant difference between the salary of an experience professional in the classroom and an equally experienced professional running the school district. However, if you break it down to a daily rate to account for the disparity in the number of days worked, at 184 days—the typical school calendar—the teacher comes out with a daily rate of $512. If we look at the superintendent who is on 24-7, but we deduct 54 days for some weekends and holidays, reducing the number of days worked to 310, the daily rate computes to $515. Thus, by breaking it down to a per diem, there is little difference between the salary of a teacher and a superintendent.

The sad reality is that both professionals are underpaid, given their degrees and years of experience. A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that salaries for teachers in the United States with 15 years of experience are, on average, 60 percent or below the salaries of 25- to 64-year-olds with similar higher education (OECD’s 2010 edition of “Education at a Glance,” Table D3.1).

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