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The Highest Paid School Employees in Providence

Thursday, August 29, 2013


The top 30 highest paid employees in the Providence School Department earned a total of $4.5 million in pay and benefits last year and are largely comprised of top administrators and principals, according to city payroll records provided in response to a records request.

Topping the list is the schools Superintendent Susan Lusi, whose total compensation was $239,737, including her base pay of $190,000, the value of health care benefits, and the amount the city contributes for retirement. Ranking second is the chief academic officer for the district, Paula Shannon, who received $174,858 in compensation when her benefits are added to her base salary of $135,232.

Click here to see the full list of the highest paid employees in Providence schools.

Just four of those listed are teachers. Eleven are principals or school directors. The remaining 15 are district-wide administrators or their senior staff.

Providence administration costs at least double urban average

Providence spends more on central office administration than most school districts in the state, which might be expected given its larger size. But Providence far outpaces even its urban peers, state records show. For the 2010-2011 school year, Providence spent $3.2 million on central office functions—nearly triple the average of urban districts, which was about $1 million. The next year, central administration cost $1.2 million, two times the urban district average of $640,000. (The dramatic drops are apparently due to accounting changes.)

The sheer size of Providence alone cannot account for its greater expenses. For example, in the 2011-2012 school year, Pawtucket had 40 percent of the student population that Providence had but its central office expenses were only 16.7 percent of what the capital city spent.

In Providence, a number of administrators occupy a middle position between the superintendent and the individual school principals. They include a coordinator for grants and a director of development, an executive director of curriculum and a director of professional learning, and an executive director for “federal programs and family and community.” There are also two deputy superintendents who oversee zones of schools.

“The public education system has long been viewed as a job factory for adults with the flow of taxpayer dollars having lackluster impact on improving student achievement levels or narrowing the academic gaps prevalent among and between white students, poor students, and students of various ethnic backgrounds,” said Lisa Blais, spokesperson for the OSTPA, a taxpayer advocate.

She said public education continues to struggle to prepare students for college or the workplace. “Too often we hear that classroom materials are in short supply and many teachers speak out about purchasing those supplies to avoid students being short-shrifted,” Blais added.

“We’re in a period of stagnant resources in the district so we have to repurpose our … resources,” said Keith Oliveira, the chair of the Providence School Board.

School board chair: no more ‘command and control’

Oliveira said the school board has been discussing for the better part of the last year how to do that. The plan, which is backed by the superintendent, is to shift more resources to individual schools. Oliveira described it as “school empowerment,” saying the idea is to grant more authority and autonomy to individual school leaders, moving away from a “command and control” model of running a school district to a bottom-up approach.

The restructuring process is expected to last over the next one to two years, according to Oliveira.

The outcome might be a central office whose ranks have thinned out, said city Councilman Sam Zurier, who is also a former member of the school board. “I’m expecting that will mean ultimately the staffing of the central office will become less important and the staffing at the building level will become more important,” Zurier said.

Zurier traced the building up of the central office staff to changes that happened about ten to fifteen years ago. Previously, he said individual schools determined their own curriculum. But in the 2000 to 2002 timeframe, he said the district decided to standardize curriculum across schools. In that process, the size of the central administrative staff was expanded as well, according to Zurier.

Superintendent highest paid in state

Beyond questions about the appropriate size of the administrative staff is the issue of individual salaries. At a base pay of $190,000, Lusi was the highest paid superintendent in the state, GoLocalProv reported last October. Her salary came close to the $203,000 that state education Commissioner Deborah Gist was earning at the time.

But Lusi is actually making far less than the Providence schools superintendent in 2000 was earning, which was $225,000, according to Zurier. The next superintendent, who took over in 2002, earned $200,000 Zurier said.

Zurier said such salaries are necessary to attract qualified administrators and compete for top talent with other districts. He described the market for superintendents as national in scope, noting that one former Providence superintendent left the district to head up the school system in Fort Worth.

Oliveira agreed: “You have to pay for skilled and experienced administrators,” he said.

So did Frank Flynn, the head of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, which represents educators in Providence. “We need to have highly qualified administrators,” Flynn said. “We need to pay them appropriately.”

Flynn noted that superintendent’s salary is on par with what the CEO of a similar-sized business might earn.

The same might hold true for her deputies, according to Blais.

“Looking at the top 30 administrative salaries it is evident that the standard is a six-digit income—some of these comparable positions in scope and responsibility in the private sector may offer the same base salary,” Blais said. But, she added, a private-sector organization “would certainly not continue to carry the hefty aggregate payroll if the outcomes were poor.”

Overall, only about 35 employees have base salaries in the six figures. But when the total compensation is considered—including employer health insurance and retirement contributions—807 employees had a total pay and benefits package of $100,000 or more last year, city records show. (About 3,750 names appear on the payroll, which includes pension payments to retired educators.)

Even so, Providence teachers are on the lower end of the income pay scale in Rhode Island, according to a recent city council survey, Zurier said.

Salaries only one piece of the puzzle

In the city payroll records, base pay is only one of many components that make up the overall compensation of an employee. In addition to base pay, payroll records list at least eight other categories of compensation: worker’s compensation, longevity, overtime and callback, retro payments, severance, medical insurance, dental insurance, and retirement. In fact, there are more categories, grouped under the catch-all “other payments” on the payroll records provided.

Generally, all the other forms of pay and benefits count for about a third to half of the total compensation for the highest paid school employees.

For example, the district’s information technology officer, Pedro Santos, had a base pay of $99,366. Additional pay included: $2,514 in retroactive payments and $760 in “other” payments. The city also contributed $14,079 towards health insurance, $1,283 towards dental insurance, and $24,611 towards his city retirement plan. His total compensation came out to $142,616, with benefits accounting for about half that.

Given the salary levels for the top employees, Blais said their benefits could use further scrutiny. “It’s notable that taxpayers are heavily subsidizing costly health insurance. Presuming an eighty-twenty cost-share, then employees at these levels of compensation should be kicking in far more toward the cost of health-related benefits,” Blais said.

Stephen Beale can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @bealenews


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