Audrey Spalding
There are wide gaps in pay and benefits between superintendents at rich and poor districts — even for those with seemingly equal qualifications. I suspect that a large reason several superintendents have been so wary of providing their contracts is that they know how big the range in compensation is.

For teachers, pay is pretty simple. Missouri public school districts have "teacher salary schedules" to determine each teacher's salary. Generally, there are two factors: relevant experience and education. Think of each level of education as a ladder, with years of experience as rungs. When a teacher comes into the district, he's placed on a ladder rung, and moves up in pay each year he stays with the district. For example, at Waynesville School District (linked above), a teacher with a Master's degree and three years of experience earns $40,634, while someone with four years of experience earns $41,164.

Those salary schedules are hyper-public. Many districts, such as Lee's Summit, also post online salary schedules for other employees, such as custodians.

Notably absent is a superintendent salary schedule. Unlike teacher pay, those figures aren't standardized within a district. Instead, salaries are negotiated when a superintendent is first hired, and usually amended each year at school board meetings. The contracts vary widely. Sure, superintendents tend to earn more at larger districts than at smaller ones. Other things, like whether a superintendent has an advanced degree, and the number of years he has worked at the district, play a role.

But, sometimes, the district just might have more money to spread around.

For example, let's look at two public Missouri school districts, District A and District B. The superintendent at District A made $185,000 during the 2007–08 school year, while the superintendent at District B will make a little more than half of that, $94,245, during the coming school year.

Why the difference? Well, it's not district size. Both are nearly identical in terms of student enrollment — in 2007, District A had 788 students, while District B had 787.

Nor is it a gender issue, or a question of who has a higher degree. Both superintendents are male and hold degrees advanced enough that they go by "Dr." And, as for experience, both superintendents have worked five years for their respective districts.

Still, there is a major difference between the two. District B, the one that pays its superintendent about half as much, is a school district where nearly 60 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. More bluntly, District B is a low-income district, while District A, with only 20 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, is a higher-income district.

It's the money. District A has less, and spent about $8,000 per student in 2007, while District B spent a little more than $14,000 per student.

Ideally, superintendents (and other school employees) would be paid more based on how difficult their jobs are. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education acknowledges that it takes more money to teach lower-income students; when calculating how much funding to give to schools, the department pays 25 percent more for each student eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, above a threshold.* By that measure, the superintendent for the poorer school district should receive a higher salary.

But, because the richer district has more money, it pays its superintendent much more. And superintendents know this. The superintendents at poorer, generally rural, school districts tend to joke that they'd like to see their better-paid counterparts come over to their poorer district and watch them "push a mop around." They're the ones that tease over the phone about their super-secret non-salary benefits, which are ... none.

Is this fair? After all, if a district has more money, why shouldn't it pay its superintendent a share of the excess? That's how it works with CEOs of private companies — and it's a decision for the school board, not for the state, or something that district voters can weigh in on directly. In fact, superintendent salary negotiations take place at closed school board meetings. The public can't attend, and minutes of those meetings aren't available under the Missouri Sunshine Law.

I think school board members are forgetting something. There should never be an issue of excess in any public organization. And board members shouldn't vote to pay far above and beyond what's necessary under the cover of a closed meeting. Every district's budget is a direct grant from local taxpayers, the state, and the federal government. Just because a school district has more money available doesn't mean they should spend more than they need to.

* The free and reduced-price threshold is, according to state statute, "calculated by dividing the total free and reduced lunch pupil count of every performance district that falls entirely above the bottom five percent and entirely below the top five percent of average daily attendance, when such districts are rank-ordered based on their current operating expenditures per average daily attendance, by the total average daily attendance of all included performance districts[.]"

Please let me know what you think. Leave a comment below, or — as always — feel free to email me.

About the Author

Audrey Spalding