"Teachers normally don't think about (a superintendent's salary) until all of a sudden, they're asked to make cuts - and then they find out that while many of them took no salary increases, their superintendent got an increase
of 5 to 15 percent," said Ed Hasson, the Marin representative for the California Teachers Association.
Several Marin superintendents, including those in Novato and the Tamalpais districts, have either declined or sought no salary increase this year, and others have accepted furloughs. One, Shoreline Superintendent Stephen Rosenthal, cut 30 days from his work schedule, reducing his annual salary from $160,228 to $131,290.
"When you ask other people to make cuts, you'd better be willing to make cuts yourself," said Rosenthal, whose district has cut $1.3 million from its budget during the past year. "The cuts had to come from somewhere, so the administration stepped up to the plate."
Yet other administrators have seen their salaries soar, often as a result of contracts negotiated well in advance of the current budget crisis. The increases range from $2,499 for San Rafael Superintendent Michael Watenpaugh to $11,054 for Reed Superintendent Christine Carter. Others
Those raises have raised questions among parents, teachers and staff members who believe leadership sometimes calls for sacrifice.
Unrest in Larkspur
"As a parent, everywhere we turn we hear about the crisis at hand," Larkspur parent Grier Mathews told the Larkspur School Board last week. "The hand is always out. The school foundation wants us to kick in more; the PTA wants us to kick in more. We spend more time in the classroom, bake more brownies to pay for field trips and mobilize for a parcel tax vote. We've all exercised fiscal prudence during these times, and we'd hoped you would as well."
Neither Mathews nor any of the other half-dozen parents who attended the Larkspur meeting Wednesday had any complaints about the performance of Superintendent Valerie Pitts, who has been credited with boosting test scores and raising staff morale in her five years at the district.
But in light of the $977,200 in cuts to its $13 million budget Larkspur has made this year, many felt the board should have revisited its decision to award Pitts a $31,000 increase over three years, from $158,000 in 2007-08 to $189,000 in the current year.
"To say that $20,000 or $30,000 doesn't impact the district is tantamount to saying the fundraising dollars we raise through the wrapping paper sales the PTA runs don't matter either," said Larkspur parent Catherine Guthrie. "I own a small business with my husband. In good times, we make more than our highest-paid employee. But in bad times, we are the first people to take a pay cut."
The attack on Pitts' salary surprised members of the Larkspur board, who noted that despite the tough economy, Pitts had pushed through a 2 percent pay increase for both teachers and classified staff, bagged a $300,000 grant for the district and had managed to rescind the four layoff notices that went out to teachers earlier this year.
But trustees acknowledged that awarding any kind of raise in 2010 was bound to raise eyebrows.
"The timing was just crummy," said Larkspur Trustee Bonnie Frank. "Unfortunately, the timing of this increase happened when a lot of people in this community are hurting."
Superintendents defend pay
The concern over superintendent salaries comes at a time when a combination of state cuts to education, record low property tax revenues and an economy in recession has forced Marin school districts to cut thousands or even millions of dollars from their budgets.
Marin's superintendent salaries range from $127,682 for Bolinas Superintendent Lawrence Enos to Reed Superintendent Carter, who will retire this year at a salary of $246,000. By contrast, the average salaries for the county's teachers ranges from $60,793 in Novato to $85,402 in the Tamalpais Union High School District.
But administrators point out that while many superintendents earn twice as much as the average teacher in their district, they also work longer hours and more days - about 223 days a year, as opposed to about 187 days for teachers. Superintendents also argue that their salaries are determined by an elected board, and that their continued employment depends on their ability to meet the board's goals.
"If I took the highest-paid teacher in my district and divided their salary by the number of days and hours they worked, that teacher would earn $62.57 per hour," said Enos, whose salary rose slightly this year from $125,142 to $127,682. "If I did the same for my base salary, I would come up with $67.55. So for my additional responsibilities, I earn $5 more an hour."
No district has been hit harder by the financial crisis than Novato, where officials have cut more than $10 million from the district's $55 million budget during the past two years, and plan to slash another $3.6 million in the next three. Neither Superintendent Jan La Torre-Derby nor any other administrator has received a raise during the past three years.
"I've been here since 1992, and I've never taken a raise other than what the staff gets," La Torre-Derby said.
Yet even Novato has come under fire from its faculty union for the size of its administration.
"Our administrative budget at the Novato Unified School District is higher than those of comparable districts, while our certificated salaries are much lower," said Jason Obstarczyk, president of the Novato Federation of Teachers. "Now they want us to bail them out with pay cuts. Well, we live in Marin County. Our teachers are scraping to get by as it is."
Analyst Ron Bennett disputes that argument, saying most California school administrations are far from bloated.
"The state has laws about the maximum number of administrators a school can have, depending on the size of the district and its schools," said Ron Bennett, president and CEO of School Services of California, a firm that provides financial advice to many of the state's school districts. "We in California are funded at such a low level that we have literally half the administrators schools have in other states. We have a lot fewer teachers, too - with the highest class sizes in the nation as a result."
Even small school districts require someone to pay the bills, oversee employees and work with parents, said Superintendent Tammy Murphy of the one-school Ross School District.
"I'm the superintendent, but I also support the personnel department, because we don't have a human resources department," said Murphy, whose salary stayed the same this year after rising from $165,375 to $176,596 last year. "We have a district manager who also has to do all the deposits and write the payroll."
That's prompted some school officials to suggest that the best way to cut administrative costs is to consolidate some of the county's 19 school districts, reducing the number of administrators.
"A lot of people like their fiefdoms, but I believe consolidation is the way to address some of the problem with out-of-control monies going to the top and not trickling down," said Larkspur's Frank.
In the immediate future, however, the best chance for making education cuts equitable is likely to take place at the bargaining table, as superintendents, elected boards and unions hammer out their contract agreements for the coming year. Union representative Sue Holland hopes her own Dixie School District - as well as Marin's other school districts - will follow the example of Novato and San Rafael, which held a series of public forums to explain the budget situation and ask parents and other voters to share their ideas.
"They tried to get input from the stakeholders before their boards made their final decisions," said Holland, a teacher at Miller Creek Middle School and council representative for the California Teachers Association. "In our district, we're trying not to pit one union versus another, or the staff versus the administration. We're trying to work together to solve the problem. But as times get tougher, it does become more of a challenge."
Contact Rob Rogers via e-mail at email@example.com