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TV Station Examines Local School Superintendents' Pay and Perks

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A Washington, D.C., TV station aired a report Wednesday on the pay and perks of school superintendents in its viewing area—one that might have made the administrators squirm at least a little bit if they had gone on camera to defend themselves, which none was willing to do.

The report was pretty enterprising given that local TV news operations rarely (or so it seems, from where I sit) report on something relating to the governance of local schools, as opposed to violence or other crises. 

"Personal drivers, security details, and quarter-million dollar salaries," WJLA-TV 5 p.m. co-anchor Scott Thuman said in introducing the report. "We're not talking governors or U.S. senators. These compensation packages are going to area school superintendents."

Chris Papst, a reporter on WJLA's "I-Team," displayed a sheaf of papers—copies of contracts for the chiefs of 29 school systems, including those of the District of Columbia and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs. 

The average salary for those chiefs, Papst said, was $193,432, with total compensation packages typically adding more in the form of housing allowances, cars, and retirement benefits.

The highest salary in the station's examination was the $290,00 for Kevin Maxwell, the superintendent of the 127,000-student Prince George's County, Md., system. The lowest salary in the group was $110,985 for Donna Whitley-Smith of the 3,377-student Page County, Va., system. (The station has a spreadsheet of the salaries here.)

The "perks" part of the heavily-promoted report was a bit overblown. One superintendent has a housing alllowance, a couple have drivers, and a couple have security. The station got reaction from an unidentified woman on the street to the security perk. "That's incredible," she said. "I mean, are people trying to kill them?"

I have a couple of quibbles with the report. First, Papst didn't make clear that most school systems in the Washington area are city or county systems that are pretty large in terms of enrollment. And the only salary comparison with other government salaries he provided was to note that the governor of Virginia is paid $175,000.

(AASA, the School Superintendents' Association, reports in its most recent compensation survey a nationwide median of $113,000 in salary for superintendents. But the median is much higher for chiefs in districts with enrollments of 25,000 or more. That median is $196,140 for males and $234,000 for females, the group says.)

Papst notes that no superintendent in the Washington area would go on camera to defend his or her compensation. He does interview some teachers and a Virginia state legislator who are critical of the salaries and perks. The head of the Prince George's County school board defends the top salary paid to its superintendent, saying, "Getting talented people around your kids is important."

And the executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents tells Papst that leading a school system is "a tough job" with little job stability. Still, Ben Kiser, himself a former superintendent of the Gloucester County district (in southeastern Virginia, not on WJLA's list) tells Papst that he managed to make do without a personal driver.

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