Tight budgets, extra duties lead to high turnover for Iowa superintendents
Gazette review of 271 superintendent contracts shows median salary $135,000
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As with CEOs, school superintendents manage multimillion-dollar budgets, work long hours, answer to boards and employ hundreds to thousands of people.
But unlike top corporate officers, school district leaders make decisions in public, are blamed for everything from snow days to lackluster lunches, and most don’t get the lavish pay and perks awarded company executives.
“You’re a public servant,” said Robert Olson, who has been superintendent 27 years at Clarion-Goldfield-Dows, a central Iowa district of about 950 students.
Olson, 61, has served his school district longer than any other Iowa superintendent, according to a Gazette analysis of superintendent contracts and data from 314 Iowa school districts.
Nearly half of Iowa’s district leaders have been in their positions five years or less and, for 12 percent of Iowa superintendents, this is their first year on the job.
This churn reflects, to some degree, the large number of baby boomers retiring. But lower-than-expected state appropriations have accelerated turnover as district leaders struggle to economize without harming student learning, said Roark Horn, executive director for the School Administrators of Iowa, which represents more than 2,000 Iowa superintendents, principals and other administrators.
“People who take on this responsibility really want to help others, but they soon realize there are limits to what you can do,” Horn said.
More than 90 percent of Iowa’s 336 school districts responded to an Open Records request from The Gazette seeking their superintendent’s employment contract, hire date and list of perks not included in the contract. This story and the data collected is being offered to newspapers around the state as part of Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote open government and freedom of information.
Superintendent salaries, perks
Superintendent salaries in Iowa range widely depending on the size of the school district, with the median for 2015-16 being about $135,000.
The lowest full-time salary is $28,500 for Steve Lane, superintendent for CAL, a 261-student district in north central Iowa. Lane, retired in 2012, must be paid less than $30,000 because he’s collecting his education pension.
The highest superintendent salary in Iowa is $279,864 for Thomas Ahart, who leads the Des Moines school district, with 32,580 students.
One in five Iowa superintendents who submitted contracts receive payments into a retirement fund. Waukee Superintendent David Wilkerson, whose suburban Des Moines district has 9,448 students, receives the largest payment at $50,000 a year into an annuity and $5,000 into 457(b) retirement plan.
The bulk of Iowa districts provide a car for their superintendent or pay mileage. One-third of Iowa school districts are paying for superintendents’ cellphones.
The median vacation for Iowa superintendents is 20 days, which is higher than the national average of 16 days for all jobs. But, judging by many superintendent contracts allowing leaders to redeem some unused vacation for cash, education leaders aren’t using much of their time off.
Superintendent contracts also revealed some unique benefits, such as a $1,500 tuition reimbursement for Missouri Valley Superintendent Deidre Drees, a golf club membership for Roland-Story’s Matthew Patton, free school lunches while Kingsley-Pierson Superintendent Scott Bailey is on duty and rent-free living in a district-owned house for South Hamilton Superintendent Kenneth Howard.
Consulting allowed by most districts
School officials in Iowa and across the country are moonlighting for educational companies, universities and professional organizations. These opportunities can help administrators refresh their skills — but they also can lead to potential conflicts of interest.
“It’s not just about the extra money you’re making on the side,” Samuel Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University, told The Gazette last fall.
“The superintendents are making money from counseling other school districts about getting scores up. They’re consequently that much less likely to criticize an accountability system that should be criticized.”
About one-third of the Iowa districts that submitted superintendent contracts permit superintendents to do consulting, writing, teaching or other outside work. Most of those districts allow outside work “on the clock” as long as it doesn’t interfere with superintendent duties.
The Waterloo school district, with 10,936 students, limits Superintendent Jane Lindaman to five days of consulting a year. Pella, with 2,140 students, requires Superintendent Greg Ebeling to use vacation days for consulting and, even then, he can use only five days.
Iowa City Superintendent Stephen Murley’s contract was scrutinized last year when a Chicago-area private education company for which he moonlighted was indicted in a kickback scandal with the Chicago public schools. Murley and other superintendents who taught courses for principals were not linked to the scheme.
Murley, who has been with Iowa City schools since 2010, is allowed 10 days of discretionary leave, on top of 30 days of vacation, to use for “personal business, consulting, professional activities, community events or other activities that will contribute to the betterment of the district,” according to his contract.
Tim Cronin, who is the Central City superintendent and elementary principal, teaches a University of Iowa night class on contemporary management strategies for PreK-12 principals. Central City allows him, should the opportunity presents itself, to become a part-time college professor while continuing at Central City, a district of 478 students north of Cedar Rapids.
“That is a long shot,” Cronin said in an email. “Just to be clear, it is language for a future possibility.”
Superintendents spread thin
Iowa superintendents are increasingly being asked to take on additional roles, such as principal, special education coordinator or human resources director. About 15 percent of Iowa’s superintendents lead more than one school district to save money.
When Lynnville-Sully, with 434 students, decided in February 2015 to eliminate the position of high school principal, Superintendent Shane Ehresman was asked to take over those duties with no additional pay.
“The school board has been having ongoing discussions since the state Legislature continues to provide inadequate supplemental state aid,” said Ehresman, who is paid $123,469 and has been with Lynnville-Sully since 2010.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad vetoed $55.7 million in additional funding for K-12 schools last year.
An Iowa law expanded in 2014 provides districts the per-pupil funding equivalent of eight students (about $52,000) if they share a superintendent. There are lesser savings for sharing other administrators, adding up to a maximum credit equal to 21 students, or about $136,500.
“Little schools and bigger schools alike are cashing in as new money doesn’t come close to covering the increased cost of doing business,” said Fred Whipple, the part-time superintendent for the 468-student Waco school district in southeast Iowa.
The Waco school board is talking with three other districts about sharing a superintendent next year. The law requires each sharing district have at least 20 percent of the full-time contact hours for the positions.
Whipple, 66, had led four school districts before coming to Waco as an interim appointment to work two days a week.
“I’m able to meet expectations, but your ability to inspect what you’ve expected is not there anymore,” Whipple said. “You transfer a lot of pressure and accountability to building principals.”
Clear Lake and Mason City agreed in January to stop sharing Superintendent Anita Micich, the Mason City Globe Gazette reported. Clear Lake’s board decided to hire its own leader focused solely on the 1,222-student district, despite estimated cost savings of $800,000 over five years of sharing.
Few women in upper management
Micich is one of nearly 40 female superintendents who submitted contracts for this story, which is about 15 percent of the total. Three-quarters of teachers nationally are women, but relatively few seek upper management.
“It’s time-intensive and education-intensive work,” said Micich, 68, who started her career teaching music and special education. She got her Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University in Nashville when her son was young.
“I thought maybe I would be a principal,” she said. “I never thought I would be a superintendent.”
Micich found she loves envisioning the future for her school districts and helping principals grow in their skills.
“It’s difficult times,” she said. “There’s a sense of, ‘Who needs a superintendent?’ But I would encourage women interested in becoming a superintendent to consider it. It’s very fulfilling.”
Double time: Superintendent juggles 2 school districts in Lisbon, Springville — by Molly Duffy
Early Monday morning, Superintendent Pat Hocking organized the agenda for Wednesday’s school board meeting.
Between items — early retirement requests, a dysfunctional boiler in the kindergarten-through-grade-12 building, upcoming union salary negotiations — and people popping in with extra business, the Lisbon school board president called to talk about the upcoming meeting.
Hocking’s inbox refreshed with new, unread emails. A few minutes after noon, Hocking left his Lisbon office for the day.
About 20 minutes and 12 miles later, he walked into his office at the Springville school district. As the Springville superintendent, he had business to take care of there, too — salary negotiations, sorting out the title for the snow plow he recently bought for the district. But he couldn’t be late for his stage debut.
That afternoon, Hocking was down the hall, standing on a table in a tall, red-and-white-striped hat, playing the lead role in “Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat” for Springville’s k-6 students.
By sharing a superintendent, both districts receive a much-needed boost to their budgets. A 2014 Iowa law allots about $52,000, the funding equivalent of eight students, for districts who share a superintendent. There are additional credits available for sharing other administrators as well, with a cap of $136,500.
About 15 percent of Iowa’s 336 school districts share a superintendent.
For Lisbon and Springville, the additional funds prevent or at least soften budget cuts. With most of the districts’ budgets allotted to staff salaries, any additional money typically means avoiding layoffs, Hocking said.
The districts also save money by splitting the cost of the superintendent’s salary. Hocking was Lisbon superintendent for two years before adding the job at Springville. As the superintendent at Lisbon, Hocking earned about $122,900. Taking on a second district bumped up his salary to $150,000, or $75,000 from each district.
For the small districts — Springville’s district has 359 students, while Lisbon has 672 — sharing Hocking also has led to idea-sharing.
“When you’re a small school and you don’t have a lot of administrators in the same role, you have to go out and find people,” Springville Secondary Principal Nick Merritt said. “That’s been a big thing for Pat, to connect us to each other.”
But leading two school districts is a juggling act. Hocking’s color-coded weekly calendar is a jumble of overlapping red and orange and blue time blocks that typically begin around 7 a.m. and can stretch past 8 p.m. And as much as he’d like to be present for students, there isn’t always time.
“It really becomes more of the business side of things rather than the education side of things,” Hocking said. “At first, I really struggled with that. But the reality of it is, by me taking on the business side of things for two districts, it really opens up everybody else to do the educational component.”
Doubling the load isn’t for everyone, Hocking said, and it can burn out a superintendent.
“It does take some patience, it does take some time,” he said. “Being in administration for 22 years and having some of the experience I’ve had has helped me work through this position. But I do think a lot of people are looking to go to shared positions.”
Although he enjoys the work, Hocking, 50, said he’ll probably retire as soon as he’s eligible.
Until then, he’ll keep wearing a Lisbon polo underneath a Springville pullover, or vice versa, for casual Fridays. Some weeks, he’ll pull on a shirt with the Springville Oriole on one pocket and the Lisbon Lion on the other.
Once Friday’s over, he switches off his work email notifications on his cellphone and aims to recharge before Monday.
Methodology for this story
Media outlets around the country celebrate Sunshine Week, today through March 19, to call attention to the importance of open government and freedom of information. Without transparency, the public doesn’t know how government works, whether taxes are spent properly or if citizens are being treated fairly.
The Gazette decided, in collaboration with other Iowa newspapers, to request superintendent employment contracts from all school districts in the state. We sent a preliminary email Feb. 22 to all Iowa superintendent addresses on file with the Iowa Department of Education.
We asked superintendents, or their delegates, to send us an electronic copy of their 2015-16 contract, initial hire date and a list of perks not included in the contract. We followed up with a reminder message March 2, giving superintendents a March 4 deadline.
More than 90 percent of Iowa’s 336 school districts responded to the request.
Four school districts charged The Gazette for the records, with the largest charge of $30 from United Community School District in Boone. The vast majority of districts provided the requested information, although a few sent contract details in an email instead of sending the actual contract.
Gazette reporters Erin Jordan, John McGlothlen and Alex Boisjolie entered the data into a spreadsheet, seen below. (Note: this is an abbreviated version of the document, streamlined to fit into a PDF that could be posted online.)
The Gazette sent follow-up emails to clarify contract details, if needed, and called a few districts for interviews to write the story.
Gazette reporters Molly Duffy, John McGlothlen and Alex Boisjolie contributed to this story.