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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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Thank you for refreshing my browser and deleting my comment! Anyone with knowledge of websites and the computer languages used knows that is totally under your control...which leaves me thinking that you are either incompetent at running a computer website or you are intentionally deleting comments that are more than knee-jerk reactions.

Comment #1 by Charles Beckers on 2012 10 05

Charles, I believe an anti-spam program run by GoLocal is the reason for your browser refreshing and erasing your comments, nothing all that sinister, although it can be annoying.

Save yourself some agita, open Notepad or a similar program, compose your message there, and then cut & paste it into the comments section when it's done. You wont lose anything and you can save your comment if you want.

Comment #2 by Kevin McCarthy on 2012 10 05

Kevin: GoLocalProv, to the best of my knowledge, is not a locally based computer operation; it is part of a group of similar media outlets using the same software. That means they have the combined resources to solve the problem. I do not experience this issue when commenting on Facebook...or other social media sites. Those sites seem to have solved the problem without resorting to "refresh and delete" tactics. It is a problem of computer programmer competence...or it is intentional and intended to favor brief, knee-jerk comments. In the past I have directed this comment to the management of GoLocalProv in private messages and basically gotten a "that's the way it is" response; it is now time to make it a public issue.

Comment #3 by Charles Beckers on 2012 10 05

Do we need 39 high paid Superintendents?? Do we need 39 Assistant Superintendents?? Do we need 39 school districts??

Is it the big salary that is the problem? Or is it the BIG 39 that is the real problem?

Comment #4 by Chris MacWilliams on 2012 10 05

Let me see if I have this right, the superintendents are invaluable to our education system, they are compensated based on size of school district, number of teachers, schools and kids and have huge burdens to run these districts to meet all of the mandates. The union also opinions that the superintendents are underpaid for all of their responsibilities.
Compensation should be based on performance of the school districts!
Performance showing the best path for kids to complete high school and attain a college bound education!
Why is it so difficult for propped up school administration employees to take on responsibility, be held accountable and work under pressure, like every private sector boss or employee?
The schools are failing, have been for years and the school districts just keep adding on more expense without improving our kids’ education goals.
More money is not the answer, a new dedication to making kids number one in education is the answer.

Comment #5 by Gary Arnold on 2012 10 05

Gary: Are you saying that tradesmen need a college education and that the high schools must prepare all students for college?

Comment #6 by Charles Beckers on 2012 10 05

Salaries for school superintendents, town managers, judges, lawyers etc are all over blown and out of wack in comparision to what the average worker gets for a salary. It is bacause of these out of wack salaries, taxes are high, fees are high and difficult for the average citizen to pay for. They are all OVERPAID just like professional sports jocks.

PS: If we had one school superitendent in RI, he/she would probably hire 38 deputy superintendents. Taxpayer in RI can't win.

Comment #7 by Mark St. Pierre on 2012 10 05

@ Charles
The article is on RI school district superintendent’s pay scale. I saw no mention of performance based on education attainment by the students, hence my comments. Do you have any opinions on the article?

Comment #8 by Gary Arnold on 2012 10 05

Go get your Doctorate and you can make $150.000.

Comment #9 by THOMAS Murray on 2012 10 05

@Gary Yes, I have opinions on the article. GoLocalProv erased them all when it refreshed my browser before I hit "CTRL-C" to copy and save them.

I understand that the article is about superintendents.

I also understand from what you wrote earlier that you believe a superintendent should be rated on their district's "[p]erformance showing the best path for kids to complete high school and attain a college bound education!"

So I ask you again, What about the district's performance in educating for the trades or do you only value the college-bound students?

Comment #10 by Charles Beckers on 2012 10 05

So how did you miss this one?

I believe it presents a much more accurate picture of the True cost to taxpayers!

The data is from an APRA request to the WW School Committee:

Employee Gross Wages FICA and Medicare Benefit
Health and
SHEEHAN, $149,774.88 $11,457.78 $7,120.44

Pension Benefit Life Insurance Legal Service Total
Expense Employer Expense Expense
$19,815.22 $624.00 $150.00 $188,792.31

Comment #11 by Fabiano Terrenni on 2012 10 05


I'm sorry the refreshing on the site has been an inconvenience for you. This is not something I control, but I will continue looking into it.

Thanks for reading,

[email protected]

Comment #12 by Dan McGowan on 2012 10 05

Did I miss something here? Superintendents use to be the voice of educational doctrine in the district, now they are tools to the voice of Gist. She tells them what to do and they get more federal dollars. So why do we need over educated drones? Why can't we have managers that take the money and tell the district what to do? Bless my old eyes, Fran Gallo makes $144,000 for one square mile? And is superintendent for life? With a degree from a Florida diploma mill and no one to tell her to stop wasting money is there any better job in the state?

Comment #13 by Joseph Fazio on 2012 10 06

@Gary "Compensation should be based on performance of the school districts! According to this statement the Superintendents of East Greenwich and Barrington should be the highest paid. Their students are usually very successful. Also, according to your statement, the Superintendent of Providence should be paid the least because Providence has the lowest performing students. This logic is completely backward. The Superintendent of Providence cannot control the illigal immmigrants, those who cannot speak English, and those whose culture does not value education. In Barrington almost all students speak English and come from upper middle class families with those values. If you logic was followed, you would never be able to hire a Superintendent because nobody would want it for the pay. You cannot compare apples to oranges, Providence to Barrington.

Comment #14 by Ed Jucation on 2012 10 07

If you think, as I do, that these school administrators' salaries are absurdly high, please sign this petition to Congress: http://www.change.org/petitions/the-c-a-p-education-reform-proposal-save-america-s-schools-by-cutting-administrators-pay-with-federal-legislation

Comment #15 by Robert Austin on 2012 10 11

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.