Some school superintendents paid far more than state suggests

2014-07-13T11:00:00Z 2014-07-23T12:04:05Z Some school superintendents paid far more than state suggestsBy LEAH TODD Star-Tribune staff writer The Billings Gazette
July 13, 2014 11:00 am  • 

Being a school district superintendent is no cakewalk.

Attendance is expected at late-night school board meetings. Waking at 4 a.m. to determine whether road conditions warrant a snow day is a regular wintertime duty. Budget problems, construction delays and parent complaints all circle back to the superintendent.

But some school districts in Wyoming punch above their weight when it comes to paying their top officials.

Sheridan County School District 2, for instance, will pay Superintendent Craig Dougherty $198,000 excluding benefits this year to run the district of about 3,300 students -- more than 150 percent of what the state suggests he should make.

That makes Dougherty, who has led the district for 14 years, the highest-paid superintendent in the state.

Kirk Hughes makes $149,000 running Converse County School District 2, a district serving 700 students in and around Glenrock. Hughes is starting his 17th year as superintendent there.

Albany County School District 1 in Laramie also spends well above the state's suggested amount to pay its superintendent, Brian Recht. Recht's $166,000 salary to lead the 3,700-student district is about 140 percent of the state's suggested pay rate.

Compensating a superintendent is a reflection of a school board's appreciation for leaders who toil in a high-stress, high-turnover position, said Brian Farmer, executive director of the Wyoming School Boards Association.

The superintendent is both the chief executive officer and the chief education officer.

"It's a very demanding job," he said.

Incomplete model?

The Wyoming Department of Education computes administrator salaries based on a few ever-changing factors.

Bigger districts, high cost of living and robust work or educational experience drives up the estimated cost of a superintendent's salary, said Jed Cicarrelli, who manages the grant that funds the state's public schools at the Wyoming Department of Education.

But the number the state suggests is just that -- a suggestion. School boards negotiate contracts with their superintendents and can pay whatever they like.

The state's model likely undervalues the market, Farmer said.

In the 2012-13 school year, all but 10 of Wyoming's 48 school districts paid their superintendents more than the state model, according to a Wyoming Department of Education study from that year.

For at least what they make leading the school district, superintendents could find a job in private industry or even at the University of Wyoming and put up with half the headaches, Farmer said.

"It's a job where you're always dealing with conflict," he said. "It's a tough job, and expectations are high."

High prices

On average, Wyoming paid its superintendents $132,989 in the 2012-13 school year, according to state data.

That is better than the pay for district officials in surrounding states.

In Utah that year, the average superintendent made $120,168, according to the Utah Office of Education.

In the 2013-14 school year, an average superintendent in Colorado made a base salary of $109,452.

Farmer, a former school board member in Cheyenne, said he understands that school boards often struggle to try to justify high-dollar salaries.

"I did not have a board member that I served with that made a salary equal to the superintendent’s," Farmer said.

Farmer, whose organization often helps Wyoming districts hire superintendents, said that while contract negotiations can vary widely from district to district, some themes are consistent when it comes to salary: how much the last superintendent made, what the incoming official's family will need, whether they will be wooed by a higher-paying salary elsewhere and whether the district can compete with that.

Still, he said, striking the right balance for compensation is difficult.

"If there is a magic way to do it, I don't think we know what that is," he said.

In Thermopolis, a town of 3,000, school board Chairman Clay VanAntwerp said his district is trying to stay competitive with its salaries.

But with declining enrollment and no cost of living adjustment in funding over the past four years, that is harder than before, VanAntwerp said. Enrollment in Hot Springs County School District 1 has dropped from 652 to 616 over the past five years, according to state data.

The district pays its superintendent, Dustin Hunt, $129,000 a year.

"We're losing that ability to be competitive," VanAntwerp said. "I challenge anybody from the state to come and look at our budget and show us where we are not doing the very best that we can."

Reach education reporter Leah Todd at 307-266-0592 or leah.todd@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter @leahktodd.

James Goossen

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