Every couple of years, the Daily Press takes a look at salaries of area superintendents. It's relevant, it's public record – and it always stirs up a brouhaha, like it did in late January.
Area residents are often troubled by the pay gap between superintendents and teachers. They're right to be concerned. While teachers in Oklahoma and elsewhere are underpaid in general, not many folks would say the same about administrators. The average teacher in these parts receives between $40,000 and $50,000 a year, and that's with benefits; superintendent compensation ranges from $81,000 to nearly $154,000.
Why the difference, and is it fair? It depends on perspective.
Most administrators start out as teachers or coaches. All must obtain degrees, but administrators pursue certificates or other training, and in many cases, so do teachers. It's not uncommon for teachers to have master's or doctoral degrees, even though superintendents might not. Some superintendents, in defending their higher pay, point out they work year-round. The same is true, though, for the best teachers.
Minimum teacher pay is set by the state, according to experience and education. In theory, an Oklahoma teacher with 25 years' experience and a doctoral degree could have a base salary of a little over $54,000. Some districts may pay more, or offer bonuses or other benefits. Thanks to determined lobbying on the part of educators and their advocates, the state finally coughed up a raise, but Oklahoma is still near the bottom in teacher pay.
Superintendent compensation is decided by school boards. Almost all board members say they want the best talent, and they're willing to pay for it. That's true even in schools with fewer than 300 students. Benefits packages vary: Some schools offer vehicles to superintendents, or pay for insurance for their families. It depends on what the individual can negotiate and what the budget can handle.
Take Tahlequah Public Schools Superintendent Leon Ashlock, for instance. He just received a $14,000 increase to make his total package a bit over $147,000. A board member explained why. Ashlock was able to reduce a fund deficit his first year, and thinks there could be a surplus by the end of this year. He's seen to it that certified staff and support personnel received raises larger than the state mandate. Staff has grown under his tenure, and he's increased funding to building maintenance. Conservation efforts have TPS on track to reduce utility bills by $30,000 a year. Four buses and four other vehicles have been added to the fleet, and all elementary students now get free school supplies. Technology – including computer availability – has been greatly enhanced, and textbook spending has increased by $200,000 annually. Several grants have been added to the lineup, and impact aid has increased. A seven-period day has benefited hundreds of students. Vo-tech enrollment is up, and more students than ever are applying to college.
The list could go on, but a cogent point is that Ashlock is responsible for 3,663 students, though he makes less money than some rural superintendents with fewer than one-tenth that number. So TPS board members feel they got a bargain.
Plenty of grumbling has been ongoing about superintendent compensation, and patrons in some districts want to know where to cast blame. The answer is simple: It's partly their own fault if they haven't voted in school board elections, which historically have by far the lowest turnouts. For some districts, that comes around next week.
We're all paying taxes to support the school districts in which we live and own property. It's up to voters to hold the feet of board members to the fire – just as they should be doing for state senators and representatives, the congressional delegation, and the president.