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The Highest Paid Superintendents in RI

Friday, October 05, 2012


School superintendents are the highest paid local officials in Rhode Island, earning tens of thousands more than top municipal officials, and combined hauling in more than $4 million in salary and longevity, new state data shows.

The highest paid superintendent in Rhode Island is Providence school chief Susan Lusi, whose $190,000-a-year salary is close to the approximately $203,000 state education commissioner Deborah Gist earns annually. 

The superintendents for some of the largest, more urban school districts made the top ten list, including those in Warwick, Pawtucket, and Woonsocket. But the heads of comparatively smaller school systems, such as Middleton and Portsmouth are also among the highest paid. (See chart at bottom for complete listing.)

The average salary for a superintendent is $135,535.

No other local official comes even close. Mayors and managers earn $98,135, on average. Police and fire chiefs are nearly tied at around $89,000 while public works directors average about $80,000.

Too expensive?

Taxpayer advocates say superintendents are costing too much.

“The data vividly demonstrates that there are excessive administrative costs weighing down the cost burden on the state’s school districts,” said Donna Perry, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition. “We can’t afford to have communities spending over $4 million combined on superintendents who preside over districts that are relatively small when compared to larger school districts found in many other states.”

However, the salaries for the superintendents of larger school systems, such as Providence’s, may be justified, said Lisa Blais, spokeswoman for the Ocean State Tea Party in Action. “Looking at other executives with less at stake than being responsible for setting thousands of children on their path to the future, the top salary of $190,000 is possibly reasonable,” Blais said. (Lusi did not respond to a request for comment.)

“The issue becomes when you look at small, suburban school systems. Is there any need for a superintendent of say 2,000 or 3,000 students? The City of Providence has roughly 24,000 students and pays its superintendent $190,000,” Blais continued. “The combined towns of East Greenwich, Exeter, West Greenwich, North Kingstown and South Kingstown have less than 10,000 students. The combined superintendent’s salary of those towns is over half a million dollars. That math doesn’t work.”

Municipal leader: managers are ‘grossly underpaid’

The disparity between school superintendents and municipal managers is troubling for Dan Beardsley, Executive Director of the RI League of Cities and Towns, which represents mayors and managers.

But the issue for him is not how much superintendents make. It’s how little the managers make.

“I don’t think they’re overpaid,” Beardsley said, referring to superintendents. “I think municipal executives are grossly underpaid.”

He said the low pay is common throughout New England and stands in contrast to what municipal leaders earn in the Midwest, the West, and Sunbelt states like Arizona and New Mexico. Managers in California in similar-sized cities to many of those in Rhode Island earn well over $200,000, Beardsley noted.

He blamed a number of factors for the situation in Rhode Island—parochialism, conservatism, the bad economy, and restrictions on when managers can request raises. Elected mayors face other obstacles to high pay: limitations in the local charter on their salaries, and the political fallout they would face if they asked for an increase in pay.

‘Enormous responsibility’ of superintendents

The high salaries superintendents make when compared with other municipal officials reflects the amount of time that an educator has to spend in the school system and amount of preparation necessary before someone is ready to be a superintendent, said John Pini, a former superintendent himself and currently the executive director of the Rhode Island School Superintendents’ Association.

Superintendent positions commonly require several degrees and many of those in Rhode Island have doctoral degrees in education. Counting continuing education, a person could spend as much as 18 or 19 years in school before becoming a superintendent, according to Pini.

“And, it has to do with the responsibility and the enormity of the task of educating children,” Pini said.

He added: “In terms of the enormity of what we’re talking about, I think people recognize how important that is for the future. If we don’t do a good job educating our children, the future is bleak.”

Beyond the importance of education, another factor is the sheer size of school districts, as compared with other municipal departments. For example, the Providence superintendent is responsible for 1,900 teachers, 23,000 students, and 51 school buildings, using 2010 figures. In terms of staff size alone, that’s more than the Providence fire and police departments combined.

“That’s a lot of people and a lot of properties you’re responsible for,” Pini said.

And that responsibility, he added, is not limited to the school day. It’s a 24-and-7 job.

He pointed to decisions about snow days as just one example. “That’s huge and quite frankly you can’t overpay superintendents for that responsibility,” Pini said.

 ‘Worth every penny’

The second highest paid superintendent in the state, John H. Ambrogi, agreed.

“I think superintendents earn every penny they make in today’s market,” Ambrogi said.

Ambrogi’s first stint as a superintendent was in 1984 in Lincoln. Over the ensuing 28 years, he says the job has become very difficult because of increasing pressure from the state on testing requirements and greater involvement in evaluating administrators.

“Certainly, the economy has been horrible in terms of negotiating contracts and ... laying off folks,” Ambrogi said.

Cultural changes have added to the toll, he added. In a society that is increasingly litigious, he says teachers, parents, and just about everyone else connected to school districts is more likely to turn to courts to settle disputes, rather than work them out amicably. “People are less willing to work things out now than they used to be,” Ambrogi said. “The public discourse is more mean-spirited.”

Ambrogi said he plans to retire next year. “It used to be a kinder, gentler place,” he concluded. “But it has become far more stressful.”

As for his salary level, Ambrogi said it appears higher than other superintendents in the state because he takes higher pay in exchange for giving up other benefits that other superintendents might negotiate in their contracts—transportation reimbursements, stipends based on degrees, longevity pay, and health insurance coverage. Other than his 171,520-a-year salary, the only benefit he does receive is Delta Dental, Ambrogi said.

 Teacher union head weighs in

A top teacher union leader also defended superintendents and their salaries yesterday.

Frank Flynn, President of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, said that the salaries superintendents are paid are “not a great deal more” than teachers when calculated on a per diem basis, since superintendents have to work year-round. “In that lens, they’re not overpaid,” Flynn said.

Like Pini and Ambrogi, he said the burdens of the position should also be taken into consideration when evaluating their level of compensation.

As for superintendents in the smaller districts, Flynn said they too can be deserving of their salaries because they often lack the support staff—such as assistant superintendents and curriculum directors—that are available to urban superintendents.

Is consolidation the answer?

School administrative costs are often cited as a reason for consolidating or regionalizing districts.

Perry said the latest salary figures only reinforce that argument. “Consolidation of districts needs to become a real discussion in this state because having an annual tab approaching $5 million dollars for individual district superintendents is just not sustainable,” Perry said.

Both Pini and Flynn are open to the idea of consolidation, but both also expressed skepticism that it would yield the kind of savings that some think it will. They pointed to the most extreme consolidation scenario, in which the entire state would become one school district.

A district on such a scale, according to Pini, would still need some 30 or so local “assistant superintendents” to monitor things on a smaller scale, undermining the intended purpose of consolidation.

But without any cuts to administrative costs, Perry warns that other areas of the school budget will suffer.

“School facilities in Rhode Island are aging and in many cases school districts operate with inferior or outdated physical plants and technology equipment used in learning and districts need to direct funds to curriculum enhancement and classroom teacher enhancement as opposed to these expensive layers of administrative personnel,” she said. “The kids will get short changed if consolidations can’t be developed in years going forward.”

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