Minneapolis, St. Paul will grapple with what to pay new superintendents

by Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
September 16, 2009

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Two of Minnesota's three largest school districts will spend a lot of time in coming months looking for new leadership.

St. Paul will replace Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, who left this summer, and Minneapolis is replacing Bill Green, who will step down after this year, when his contract ends.

Each district will try to find the best person, but they'll also have to figure out what to pay and how that compensation will be structured.

Finding a superintendent - especially for large, urban districts - is like finding a CEO, according to Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

"These people run big, big businesses," Kyte said. "They are more complex than a private business because they have to answer to the public. They're highly regulated; they're highly unionized; they have a very complex business to run."

And to attract the most qualified people, Kyte said, you have to be willing to pay enough. But for years, Minnesota districts were limited to paying no more than 95 percent of the governor's salary.

Districts found ways around that cap by paying for other benefits, like car allowances and unlimited vacation accrual. The salary cap went away in 1998 - but a 2003 state auditor report outlined how some those extras had not. Some superintendents had been able to cash in $300,000 in unused days off when they left. One contract didn't even set out a base salary - that would be figured out later.

Today, officials say contracts are more transparent - though some of those extras are still there, with limits. John Haro left the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagen district in 2003 amid controversy because he had earned more than $276,000 in unused leave. He later settled for less money -- but his replacement, John Currie, was limited in how much he could accrue.

Currie retired this summer after 14 years at Rosemount. He cashed in $159,405 in unused days - much of that built up from his pre-superintendent years.

"Those things have been tightened up, and rightfully so," Currie said. "They're all transparent and they're all in the contracts - you can see what they are."

Another superintendent who retired this year - Robbinsdale's Stan Mack - got $130,579 for unused leave, plus another $84,877 in "separation pay."

Mack said cashing in unused days is normal across the nation. In fact, any number of professionals can cash out unused leave, why not superintendents? Compensation might seem high, he says, until you consider the 80-hour work weeks and always being on-call.

"There will never be a level of compensation that will be understood - nor fully supported - by the general public," Mack said. "And there are very few people where people would ever have a full recognition of the myriad responsibilities and details."

And if you only talk salary, Mack said Minnesota trails. He said superintendent job postings on the East Coast this summer were offering $100,000 more than what he made in Robbinsdale, plus some of those extras.

There are some data to suggest Minnesota's superintendent salaries lag. The Educational Research Service found average salaries for superintendents was highest in the far western United States ($172,646). Minnesota was grouped in as a Plains state. The Plains were near the bottom, averaging $142,099 - just ahead of the Rockies ($131,512) and Great Lakes ($137,817).

For Tom Madden, this topic soon will dominate his life. As a Minneapolis School Board member, he'll help hire the next superintendent. Madden said he agrees there are cases for higher pay , but he doesn't see the need for those extras.

"The public doesn't realize that, while Superintendent X is making $185,000 a year, the reality is it's costing them as taxpayers $250,000 a year,” Madden said. “If you want to pay them $250,000, pay them $250,000."

Madden, in fact, brags about Minneapolis's current superintendent contract. Bill Green's monthly $400 car allowance is subject to review, to see how much he actually used his car. When he leaves next June, Green will only be able to cash in as many as 28 unused vacation days from the 2009-2010 year, and he won't be able to cash in any unused sick days.

Madden calls Minneapolis a model for other districts and for the kind of contract Green's replacement should get. At this point, though, officials in both Minneapolis and St. Paul say it's too early to know what kind of compensation will be paid.

The bigger concern, they say, is finding a qualified leader before worrying about contract negotiations.

Candidates will have different demands, they add, so each contract will have some degree of tailoring. Minneapolis won't even start its search process until next month, once it's completed an ongoing overhaul effort called "Changing School Options."

St. Paul, meanwhile, will host a public forum Thursday night (6 p.m. Rondo Center - 560 Concordia Ave.) to solicit ideas on what to look for in that new leader.

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