Patti Bacchus: Are we paying B.C. school superintendents too much?

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      Almost all funding for B.C. public schools comes from provincial grants to school districts that are allocated on a per-student basis. For this school year, the basic per-student grant is $7,468.

      That’s pooled together in each district’s budget, along with additional grants for special needs, English-language learners, and Indigenous students. Those funds make up the bulk of district operating budgets and are intended to cover the costs of teacher salaries, support staff, building maintenance and utilities, learning resources, district administration, and salaries for senior school-district executives, including superintendents.

      Some districts supplement the grants with revenue from international-student tuition, renting or leasing space in their buildings and properties, or from income generated by allowing their facilities to be used for filming.

      Each district is led by a superintendent of schools, who is also its chief executive officer. While the elected boards are responsible for setting district policies and other high-level decisions, superintendents are in charge of managing their school districts. It’s a big job, especially in big districts. The question I’m pondering this week is; how much is too much when it comes to paying public-school superintendents?

      The Surrey story

      In the 2018-19 school year, Surrey, which is the largest public-school district in terms of enrollment, paid its superintendent more than $350,000 in total compensation, which included a salary of $274,657 (which may have increased since then), benefits, and employer-paid pension contributions. But that’s not all. Surrey’s superintendent also gets a generous vehicle allowance of—wait for it—$21,853 a year.

      If the superintendent forgoes some of his (the current superintendent is male) many weeks of vacation time, he can take it as a payout. He did just that in 2018/19, for an additional $11,415 from the district’s budget.

      Surrey School District Education Centre.

      That adds up to more than 51 students’ worth of funding grants, just for the superintendent’s salary, benefits, pension contributions, etcetera. Then there’s the additional $70,243 he was paid in “expenses” in 2018-19, according to the district’s statement of financial information (the expense amount includes the vehicle allowance, according to Surrey school district communications staff).

      It takes an additional nine or so students’ funding grants to cover expenses, bringing the total to 60 students’ worth of funding going to the superintendent (or his expenses) before a penny goes to teachers, education assistants, textbooks, heat, etcetera.

      Good grief, the superintendent’s expenses alone are more than a starting teacher makes in a year.

      Good superintendents are hard to find, and keep

      I’m torn on this issue. As a school board chair and trustee, I went through two superintendent searches. It’s a challenging and key role and the pool of qualified candidates willing to take it on is smaller than some might expect.

      Incompetent superintendents, or those with poor people skills or who are just a bad fit, can be staggeringly expensive and harmful to a district. It’s important to find someone who can work well with an elected board, indirect oversight from the Ministry of Education, multiple unions, parent groups, students, the public, and other organizations, including their city councils.

      If you hire the wrong person, you can end up with expensive grievances, arbitrations, lawsuits, severance payouts, and you can lose a lot of good people. The district’s culture and morale will suffer and may take years to recover. The elected board can get poor advice, which can, in turn, affect the quality of its decisions.

      The hours are long, and in large urban districts, the challenges are complex, the budget is inadequate, and every day seems to bring a new crisis.

      Good supes are worth paying well

      In my eight years as a trustee, I had the pleasure of working with a couple of the top superintendents in B.C., and I believe they were worth every penny we paid them, and probably more. Mind you, we didn’t pay them anything close to what Surrey is paying its superintendent, and we sure as heck never gave anyone a five-figure vehicle allowance.

      A good superintendent solves a lot of problems before they become bigger problems. They build respectful relationships with key stakeholder (for lack of a better word) groups like employee unions, parents groups, student councils, and community groups. They keep their trustees informed and provide them with good advice and research. They’re politically savvy but stay out of the political fray themselves.

      Good superintendents are honest, open, and accountable and don’t shy away from difficult discussions and hard questions. They maintain a clear and steady vision that’s focused on providing the best opportunities possible for all students to succeed, and they do that by supporting the staff working on the frontlines, in classrooms.

      They know when to bring in experts on complex topics and do so in a neutral way, without pushing a personal agenda. They look to the future and build long-term succession plans to ensure there is continuity and stability in their districts, despite what happens politically at the board and ministry levels.

      I’ve seen the work of superintendents up close, and it’s tough. Some handle it well and with grace, while others do not.

      In Vancouver, we conducted national searches to find the best candidate to replace retiring superintendents. In both the searches I was involved with, we ended up choosing someone close to home, although we interviewed some excellent candidates from out of province as well.

      How much is too much?

      I’ve always believed that people who take on that level of complexity and responsibility should be well compensated. Like B.C. teachers, B.C. superintendents lag behind their counterparts in other large provinces when it comes to salaries. Our superintendents generally earn less than city managers and fire and police chiefs, despite overseeing budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of employees, as well as massive real estate portfolios.

      I have no doubt that a comparable job in the private sector would pay far more than any B.C superintendent is making.

      Most B.C. superintendents earn, roughly, in the $200,000 range. Smaller districts with fewer students pay less, and large districts with a lot of students pay the most. While teacher salaries have stayed fairly flat, with only small increases that barely keep pace with inflation, superintendents have made some pretty big increases in recent years. In some cases, I think the increases have gone too far, despite how much respect I have for the complexity and importance of the role.

      While teachers are being offered salary increases of two percent a year over three years, for a total of six percent, let’s not forget that six percent of $70,000 or $80,000 (a teacher’s salary) is a whole lot less than six percent of $200,000, or, in the Surrey case, closer to $275,000. I know that several B.C. superintendents received six percent raises in the latter half of 2019, which is not a good look for boards that approved them while staying silent on the what teachers are being offered at the bargaining table.

      Good superintendents are worth paying well, but when they start taking up as big a chunk of the budget as Surrey’s does, it’s too much. It might fly in the private sector, but when it’s the public’s money that’s allocated for educated kids, it comes across as entitled and tone deaf.

      The responsibility for finding the right balance between fair and adequate compensation and paying too much falls to elected school boards, which approve superintendent contracts, salaries, and benefits.

      Surrey board chair ducked question

      I made multiple efforts to reach the chair of the Surrey School Board—Laurie Larsen—this week to ask what the rationale was for the superintendent’s high vehicle allowance and expenses, and whether the board approved another salary increase in 2019. It took a couple of days to get a response telling me to get answers to my questions through the lengthy freedom-of-information-application process. So much for openness and transparency from locally elected officials.

      Too many boards are led by their management instead of the other way around. They need to be held accountable by the public for making sure we’re not robbing classroom budgets, and students, to pay overly high salaries and five-figure vehicle allowances.

      Superintendents should demonstrate better judgment as well by declining (or not requesting) exorbitant allowances and stopping excessive expense claims, leaving more to spend on the students the money was intended for in the first place.

      Let’s not forget that many teachers end up paying out of their own pockets for classroom supplies and can only dream of vehicle allowances and big expense accounts. Parents struggle to fundraise to fill in gaps in classrooms, while superintendents dine out and fill up their tanks on the district’s tab.

      I hope those boards that are so generous to their top staff are making the case to government that those who work in classrooms, with actual students, also deserve to be fairly compensated and have their expenses covered.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.