Several superintendents in Cherokee County have seen their salaries increase over the past year, and school board members are defending their reasons for approving them.
Boards take different factors into consideration when deciding how much to pay their superintendents, such as experience, education, and the going market. During an Aug. 25 meeting, Tahlequah Public Schools board member Ed Myers said a board member’s first responsibility is to hire the superintendent.
TPS is legally required to undergo superintendent evaluations every year, during which board members may renegotiate the salary for an administrator's contract if it is up.
“Different schools use different processes. We are members of the Oklahoma State School Board Association, and they provide an evaluation where you can ask questions and do rankings,” said Chrissi Nimmo, TPS board member. “You do that whether you renew contracts or offer an increase in salary.”
In 2020, TPS Superintendent Leon Ashlock received a base salary of $118,000 with a total package worth $133,637, which included a $14,000 raise. He entered a three-year contract with the understanding that he would not seek an increase of compensation during that period.
“We compared with similar size schools in the state, as well as geographic schools in the area. There were smaller schools where superintendents made significantly more,” said Nimmo.
In Steve Carey’s time in the Hulbert School Board, he has worked with a number of superintendents and has had to negotiate their contracts.
“When we’re evaluating, we compare school districts that are similar in size. We also look at the educational level of the superintendent, if they have a doctorate, and if they have experience. When that’s the case, they’re entitled to more money,” said Carey.
He explained that the HPS board always performs a market analysis before offering a contract because the market is always changing.
“We can’t offer a salary that we offered 10 years ago. The market changes and the cost of living changes. With our small school district, our superintendent carries additional responsibilities,” he said.
The HPS board members spend hours debating the amount they will propose to a potential candidate, with the understanding they can make a counteroffer. It is a difficult balance because they want to save money where they can, but they also don’t want a superintendent to jump ship for another district.
“It’s not easy, but you always want to offer a fair salary to the person that you want to lead your school,” he said.
The board is ecstatic about Superintendent Jolyn Choate, who has taken on different responsibilities during the pandemic, including bus driver.
“That lady can roll up her sleeves. I’m proud of her. Even through difficult situations, we’ve been able to work with her. She drives a bus, and she’s tough,” said Carey.
Two months ago, Choate signed a contract for a base salary of $102,000, plus benefits. In 2019-2020, former Hulbert superintendent Nicholas (Scott) Kempenich had a base salary of $95,000 in 2020 and made a total of $111,454.
Carey explained that Hulbert experiences a unique challenge as a rural school district in a county with many different districts. He said it is easy for superintendents to jump ship for a larger school district, or for a school that is willing to pay more money for the same amount of work. They valued Choate because she is originally from Hulbert.
“She went to school here and is considered one of our own,” he said. “We look at the person completely. You can have the education and experience, but we are a small-town school, so we look at the values that the person brings to the school as far as learning experience. We’re not going to bring someone who won’t fit in the community, just because they have degrees. We want our superintendent to be a part of our community, and make a difference for our future,” said Carey.
In February, the Keys Public School board voted to continue the superintendent’s contract for Vol Woods. For the 2021-2022 school year, he’ll make $125,000, plus a benefits package of $6,994, which makes for a total compensation of $131,994.
Ginger Knight of Woodall made $91,278 in 2020, according to Open Payrolls. In 2019-2020, former Woodall superintendent Linda Clinkenbeard made $119,146 and a benefits package of $12,568. Her total compensation was $131,714.
According to the 2019-2020 report from the Oklahoma State Department of Education, benefits packages for other Cherokee County superintendents are as follows: Marilyn Dewoody made $103,941 as Tenkiller School District superintendent; Steven Haynes made $133,020 at Briggs; George Kennedy of Grand View made 153,557; Rodney Cox of Peggs made $14,700; Emmett Thompson of Shady Grove made 81,959; Norman (Keith) Fisher made $110,362 at Norwood; and Cris Wyse made $98,639 at Lowrey.
The OSDE has not updated its figures for the 2020-2021 academic school year.