When your superintendent makes more than the governor: public education's priority problem 

The American education lobby is caught in a pickle.

On one hand, advocates and influencers are trying to convince people that public education is chronically underfunded, even going so far as to claim that schools are “starving.”

On the other hand, watchdogs have documented countless examples of waste and misuse of funds—everything from the McKinney school district’s $70 million high school football stadium to the La Joya school district’s $20 million water park to the Brownsville school district’s 65-foot, state-of-the-art digital scoreboard that is “the largest of its kind in Texas.

Other examples exist too, but perhaps the most instructive involves superintendent pay packages. After all, leadership starts at the top.

It’s a problem nationwide, but we’ll focus on Texas for now.

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In terms of straight salary, school superintendents are among the highest paid public servants in the state. Sitting atop that group is the head honcho of the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (ISD). He took home a whopping $406,484 for the 2017-18 school year. That was followed closely by the heads of Grand Prairie ISD ($405,795), Conroe ISD ($393,984), and Katy ISD ($386,850).

In all, Texas has nearly 100 superintendents earning the equivalent of $250,000 or more and 800-plus who are paid $100,000 or more. About 350 earn more than the Texas governor.

It’s not just that superintendent salaries are supersized. They’re also growing fast.

From 2013-14 to 2017-18, superintendents in Grand Prairie, Conroe, and Katy ISD saw their salaries soar by about 30 percent. In each case, salaries increased far faster than student enrollment, which grew by 5.9 percent, 12 percent, and 15 percent respectively. In the case of Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, its top administrator’s salary climbed by 16.7 percent while student enrollment edged up only slightly, by 4.5 percent.

Of course, superintendent salaries are just part of the problem. Rich benefit packages are also an issue.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with providing benefits. But there’s a difference between offering competitive compensation and giving away the store. To illustrate this point, look at what Grand Prairie ISD offered its superintendent.

In addition to a $400,000-plus salary, the superintendent also receives a $1,000 monthly automobile allowance, a $1,000 monthly housing allowance, a $50,000 “retention supplement,” and is reimbursed for her contribution to the state pension plan.

But wait, there’s more.

In 2016, the district purchased a $700,000 house for the superintendent to live in. The property features a “long private driveway [that] leads to a four-bedroom home, with a barn and a pool.” It rents out this palatial estate to its superintendent for a paltry $2,000 per month, half of which is covered by the aforementioned housing allowance.

Also, the district pays for routine maintenance and, shockingly enough, it spent $160,000 in taxpayer money to renovate the property and install new tile, countertops, ceiling fans, and more.

How rampant overspending like this improves student outcomes is anyone’s guess, but it certainly puts to shame the idea that schools are “starving.” If anything, just the opposite is true.

And if any further evidence is needed, one need only look to superintendent severance packages.

Some Texas school districts are paying their top administrators a lot of money to leave. From 2013 to 2017, Texas ISDs forked out $18.3 million in severance payments to 141 superintendents, according to the Texas Monitor. And in some cases, those payments defy logic.

In May, Katy ISD’s board unanimously approved a massive $750,000 payout to its now ex-superintendent, equal to twice his annual salary. Last year, Garland ISD’s superintendent was given $448,115 in severance payments. Though by the time he cashed out his benefits, unused sick leave, and other perks, the payout had ballooned $686,225. In Johnson City ISD, a school district of fewer than 750 students, its superintendent’s annual salary totaled $149,547 and yet he received a $256,727 severance payment — even though the district was dealing with an almost $1 million budget deficit.

The fact is that public education isn’t underfunded. Boards and administrators have plenty of money — they’re just not spending it in the right place, i.e. in the classroom. That much is clear from the abuses above.

This is an important lesson that lawmakers should remember when the advocates and influencers come demanding billions more for public education, in Texas and elsewhere. Throwing gobs more money at this problem is not going to solve the root issue.

James Quintero leads the Think Local Liberty project at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He can be reached at jquintero@texaspolicy.com.