My remarks to the West Lafayette Community School Board, December 13, 2021. The background is that IC 20-26-5-4.3 requires that, prior to entering into a contract with a superintendent, a school board must hold public hearing to take public comment on the proposed contract with the superintendent at least 7 days before entering into the contract. The statute permits the identity of the potential candidate to remain confidential during these negotiations. Because many potential candidates would prefer not to alienate their current employers by having their interest announced in public, this is the process followed by our school board (and, it’s my understanding, by most Indiana school boards.) I offered the following as public comment.
(This transcript is based on my notes and may not have come out as coherently!)
First of all, thank you all for your work in the superintendent selection process. When the General Assembly adopted the law requiring these hearings a few years ago, I got the sense that the intent was to put school boards in an uncomfortable position. Public hearings put downward pressure on superintendent compensation which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it’s also part of a theme where the General Assembly makes schools justify every dime spent on public education.
One problem you face is that it’s hard to know what a position like this is actually worth. For example, the Mayor of West Lafayette is a big job that affects us all and pays something like $105,000 plus benefits. I’m a county government guy, so I happen to know that some of our local county elected officials make quite a bit less. On the higher end of the scale, the State of Indiana has set compensation for our judges, prosecutor, and chief public defender at close to $160,000 plus benefits. The Exponent reported that the average salary for Purdue’s top 100 employees was close to $350,000/year. I read in recent news that Purdue’s President was paid something like $900,000 last year. So is the superintendent job more or less valuable to our community than a judge or a professor or mayor? Is it a harder or easier job? That’s tough to say.
We’re proposing to pay this individual a base salary of $160,000 and a total package in the range of $240,000 per year. Is that the right salary? Again, it’s difficult to say. I can Google salaries for various school districts or various kinds of jobs, but ultimately there is enough range in compensation and variety in circumstance that, beyond a certain point, it’s a judgment call as to what the relevant metrics should be.
Should we look at schools with similar numbers of students? Or maybe similar academic performance levels? Maybe districts with similar costs of living?
We can point to schools of a similar size that pay less and we can point to some that pay more. But size is just one variable among many. Small populations can have big challenges. Ask any teacher how much work 2 or 3 challenging students can add to a classroom. Or, maybe the fact that we’re small means that there is less staff at Central Office and, therefore, the superintendent has to do more of the work.
For my part, my view is that our schools are the heart of our community. We’re asking this person to take a job that’s essentially 24/7. Ideally, the person will move into the community and put down roots. West Lafayette is not the cheapest place to live — in part because of the quality of our schools.
It’s a big job. This is not unlike running a $40 million company. You have something like 150 teachers plus the administration and support staff required to run a school. Between full and part time, I think that gets close to 500 people all told. And, unlike your average company, every year they have to adapt to the pile of new rules the State throws at them.
We have the best school system in the state, and we want to make it better. The position comes with high expectations and a lot of pressure. That’s worth something in terms of compensation. As long as the salary is in the ball park, it doesn’t make sense to be penny wise but pound foolish with this decision or to nickel and dime every line item.
Ultimately it’s up to you to make this decision. I’m mindful of the fact that I asked for your job, and I didn’t get it. I haven’t spent months thinking about the question. I’m sure there are any number of variables I haven’t even considered. I haven’t consulted with Ross or Steve or any of the other people who know about the school’s finances or with folks who have expertise about superintendent compensation.
I’m sure we can find people in the newspaper comment sections who are extremely confident in their ability to make these decisions without putting in that kind of work. People who effortlessly know more medicine than doctors and more law than Constitutional scholars. Undoubtedly, they can run a school system without breaking a sweat. But, I’m not as smart as those people, so thank you to the members of the school board for doing this work.