Superintendents enjoy super benefits

KXAN - Austin
Feb. 8, 2011

With Texas facing a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall, every school district is facing tough decisions. Some districts are considering closing schools and laying off teachers.

So, why are some districts giving their superintendent raises and super-sized benefits? And do parents really know what their superintendent earns? Apparently, not.

Superintendents enjoy super benefits:

Here's a list of 41 superintendent contracts in area districts.

Martin Benavides and Mark Hoelscher were out fighting to keep their kids school from being closed and were shocked to learn what several local superintendents are being paid.

The base salary for Austin ISD superintendent, Meria Carstarphan makes $283,412 per year. Her district has more than 80,000 students.

Round Rock ISD superintendent has more than 40,000 students, and its superintendents base salary is $252,875. Eanes ISD has about 7,500 students and its superintendents base salary is $231,063.

"Absolutely doesn’t make sense," said Mark Hoelscher, when told of some of the perks awarded superintendents in addition to their base salaries.

Said Benavides: "That's crazy. I think these kids are a lot more important than anyone’s salary."

Those salaries are just the beginning. Many superintendents are paid a car allowance. Superintendents in Austin, Leander and Georgetown school districts get $1,000 per month.

It may sound excessive, but AISD Board President Mark Williams says it is to reimburse superintendents who are expected to drive their own cars.

“Part of the reason for the car allowance, at least in a district like ours, is we have 110 different schools,” said Williams. “We ask her to visit the schools. She's traveling everyday."

But big car allowances aren't just a big district perk.

Elgin ISD has six campuses. Its superintendent gets a car allowance of $661 per month. Bastrop ISD’s superintendent gets $650 per month, and LaGrange ISD’s car allowance is $550 per month for its top administrator.

Even though Florence and Jarrell ISD have only three schools, their superintendents get a car allowance of $500 per month. So do Burnet, Liberty Hill, Dripping Springs ISD superintendents.

Car allowances are just the beginning when it comes to perks.

Eanes ISD superintendent Nola Wellman gets about $70,000 in extra benefits added on to her $231,063 base salary.

The district reimburses her for the amount she pays for her contribution to the Teacher Retirement System, which is approximately $40,000 per year. The district also pays the income and medicare tax on the extra pay.

Wellman is paid $31,500 in an annuity account which increases $500 each year. Eanes pays $2,983 for premiums on a $560,000 life insurance policy. Wellman gets an additional

$5,000 as an annual bonus and earlier this year, the Eanes Board of Trustees voted to pay her another $10,000 for expenses she doesn’t have to report or justify.

The perks push Wellmans salary to more than $320,000.

According to Wellman’s contract, when teachers get a raise, so does Wellman. Same goes for AISD superintendent Meria Carstarphen. As AISD Board President, Williams thinks that is a good idea.

"So if the rest of the staff gets a raise, she gets a raise. If they don’t, she doesn’t,” says Williams. “I think that seems like it makes it fair, because she’s in there with everybody else."

Some superintendents have guaranteed raises built into their contracts.

Hays CISD Superintendent Jeffrey Lyon’s base salary is $179,000. He has a guaranteed raise of four percent each year for the next five years. In addition, over the next three years, Hays CISD will pay Lyon $101,306.44, so he can buy three years of service credit in the Teacher Retirement System.

On top of all that, he gets a $331.33 monthly car allowance and a $500,000 life insurance policy.

Some superintendents get raises even if the district is struggling. Thrall's superintendent got a six percent raise this year. The Marble Falls interim superintendents daily pay jumped by a third from $600 per day to $800 per day.

Also in January, the Bastrop ISD Board learned of a potential multi-million dollar budget shortfall, yet, it gave superintendent Steve Murray a $20,000r raise and approved another $10,000 to be paid March 1.

The very next week, Murray issued a memo warning of deep cuts including possible furloughs and layoffs. While other employees pay is frozen, Murray’s salary jumped to $208,000.

The most common perks are life insurance policies, over and above what the districts provide to employees.

Austin ISD pays for an $825,000 policy for its superintendent, as well as a disability policy that costs the district $9,952 per year.

Eanes ISD pays for a $560,000 whole life insurance policy in which the superintendent owns the cash surrender value. Hays CISD pays for a $500,000 term life insurance policy for its superintendent.

Manor ISD pays the premiums on a $142,600 policy for its superintendent.
Lake Travis ISD and Round Rock ISD pay its superintendents an extra $6,000 per year to pay the premiums on their privately owned life insurance policies.

Thorndale ISD pays $225 per month for a life insurance policy for its superintendent.
Some districts allow its top administrator to work extra jobs.

Dripping Springs ISD’s Mard Herrick teaches part time at UT-San Antonio and according to records, he earned an additional $7,500 last year. Some districts, such as Austin, Eanes, Elgin, Johnson City and Manor allow superintendents a certain amount of paid time off to work for other entities. Others allow it, but only if approved by the Board and vacation days are used.

Some perks stood out among benefits paid to top administrators.

Parent Martin Benavides was surprised to learn about the $30,000 Pflugerville ISD is paying for their superintendent to get his doctorate degree.

"Why are they taking money to do that?” said Benavides. “Should that not have been something that should have been a requirement when they first hired him?"

There are some other unusual benefits.

LaGrange ISD’s superintendent has a clause in his contract that requires the district to pay for personal security for the superintendent and his family if requested - although so far, that hasn’t happened.

Manor ISD pays the travel expenses for the wife of its superintendent to accompany him on two trips per year.

Superintendents in Round Rock, Lake Travis and Leander get weeks of extra paid vacation in addition to the normal time off such as Spring Break, Christmas break and other holidays.

Accruing unused vacation time is another way that superintendents benefit, especially if they are allowed to cash them out at a higher salary rate in the future. Round Rock, Eanes and Austin ISD superintendents have this clause in their contracts.

Some contracts use timing to rev up their perks for superintendents.

Eanes ISD contract specifies its superintendent gets a pay raise when other employees do. But superintendent Wellman's pay raises were made retroactive to the beginning of the year.

And in Round Rock ISD, superintendent Jesus Chavez’s contract allows the Board of Trustees to award him no more than $10,000 for reaching certain performance levels.

However, last September, the board awarded him an extra $5,000 as a one-time bonus. In addition, Chavez was also awarded a $6,750 bonus in the form of an annuity.

After a call from KXAN, the district responded that he wasn't supposed to get that $5,000 bonus, and that he's paying it back to the district with interest - and then the district thanked KXAN for bringing it to their attention.

Determining how much a superintendent actually earns is not easy.

The Texas Education Agency collects the information from every district and posts it on its website.

However, we found the salary shown only reflects the base salary, not the total compensation. Some districts post a copy of their superintendents contract on its website. For districts that don’t, a copy of the contracts are available by filing a request under the Texas Public Information Act.

Even then, it’s not easy to determine exactly how much superintendents are paid. Most districts are forthcoming, but not all. It took three requests to the Eanes ISD to determine how much its superintendent is paid, and KXAN was referred to the superintendent's personal attorney for any questions about her contract.

Some districts aren’t quick to put a new contract in writing.

The Marble Falls ISD interim superintendent worked for six months without a written contract. Interim Superintendent Jim Boyle told KXAN:

“Our board president and I shook hands on our agreement last June 2010, and it has been a 'gentleman’s agreement' as opposed to the typical superintendent professional contract. As the interim superintendent, I am truly an ‘at-will’ staff member subject to the routine two-week notice for separation by either party. This has been my preference all along. Of course, he has had the authority provided by the full board in doing so.”

School board members acknowledge compensation packages may seem excessive, but say attracting talented leaders for a complex job is worth the cost.

Parent Mark Hoelscher agrees, to a point.

"I agree you have to pay a lot for good talent, but there has to be a limit,” said Hoelscher. “I don’t know if anybody is worth that kind of money.”

Central Texas superintendents fare better than those across the country.

The American Association of School Administrators says the Educational Research Service annual salary survey says the mean salary for the nation is $159,634. The mean salary for school districts of 25,000 students or more is $225,897.

Whether an individual superintendent is worth the money they earn is up to each school district.

But the salaries and perks are likely to come under scrutiny this year as districts face tough financial decisions.