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Governors or Superintendents: Who is Worth More?

News about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's proposal to cap the salaries of district superintendents spread like wildfire late last week. Christie, a Republican overseeing a recession-battered state, has aggressively gone after what he sees as excessive spending across the public sector, and schools have been among his targets.

His announcement last week to target highly-paid school administrators struck a chord in some corners and today Christie's proposal got a ringing endorsement from editorial writers at the Star-Ledger in Newark.

Christie makes $175,000, less than the salaries of 75 percent of New Jersey's local supes, according to the Star-Ledger. It seems that local boards in New Jersey have offered especially lucrative contracts to their honchos, regardless of district size or performance, according to the newspaper.

Intuitively, it seems completely out of whack for a district superintendent to make more than the CEO of an entire state. But some of this has to do with the fact that some salaries for governors were set eons ago and don't get tweaked much. No one has to use a compensation package to get the best "hire" for the governor's office; those folks self-select by running for the office. While governors and superintendents are public servants, they operate in entirely different markets.

Still, it's instructive to compare the salaries of the two positions.

In New York, Gov. David Paterson is pulling down $179,000 (last year, he took a 10 percent pay cut) as the state's chief executive, while Joel Klein, the chancellor of the New York City public schools makes $250,000.

In California, if Arnold Schwarzenegger were taking a salary (he has forgone accepting one since his net worth is valued at somewhere between $100-200 million), he'd make $175,000, while Ramon C. Cortines, the superintendent in Los Angeles Unified, pulls down $250,000 (Cortines voluntarily took a $50,000 pay cut from what his predecessor was earning in the job). In some states, you could certainly argue that being a school superintendent is a more difficult job worthy of more compensation, though I don't think that is the case currently in California and New York, where both governors have found it next to impossible to govern much of anything lately.

In a small state like Nebraska, Gov. David Heineman makes $105,000 a year. Steve Joel, the superintendent in Lincoln, one of the state's largest districts, makes $255,000 (that's his entire compensation package, not just base salary).

What do you think? Do school superintendents—who do very hard, politically bruising, often thankless work—deserve the sort of hefty, six-figure compensation deals that Christie is going after? How should we assign value to those gigs?

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