By Darla Slipke
Like many superintendents in Oklahoma’s smaller, rural school districts, Darci Brown wears many hats.
Sometimes her job overseeing Taloga Public Schools in northwestern Oklahoma entails giving students a ride home from school, painting baseball dugouts or manning the concession stand at games. Other times, it’s disciplining students or planning the curriculum.
But by another measure, Brown, last year, was the highest paid superintendent in Oklahoma.
The Taloga district included just 86 students, meaning, on a per-pupil basis, Brown earned $963 per student, the most of any superintendent of a traditional Oklahoma school district, according to an analysis of salary and enrollment records by The Oklahoman.
The analysis comes as Oklahoma continues to debate education funding, including teacher retention and pay. Some lawmakers and others advocate consolidating districts or administrative positions as a way to save money that could be used to increase teacher salaries and make Oklahoma more competitive with surrounding states.
But opponents argue that small-district superintendents often are tasked with leading their community’s largest employer and often don’t have the assistant superintendents, program directors or other support systems of larger districts to help implement state and federal mandates.
A variety of components can factor into a superintendent’s salary, including performance, longevity and the district’s financial condition. Some lower-paid superintendents have retired and returned to work at a reduced salary.
“We believe that compensation for the CEO of a community’s largest industry that is governed by locally elected citizens is a matter that’s best left to locally elected school board members,” said Ryan Owens, co-executive director of the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration.
Pay varies widely
The average superintendent salary and benefits in the 516 school districts in the 2014-15 fiscal year was $98,710. Two-hundred and fifty-one districts had superintendent salary and benefit amounts higher than that average.
The analysis did not include a handful of charter school superintendents in the state. The salary figures do not include money some superintendents earn for additional job duties.
The per-pupil amount ranged widely, from less than $6 to more than $900. The average was $231.65.
The analysis showed that while the state’s highest-paid superintendents work in some of the state’s larger school districts, many of the superintendents who receive the most on a per-pupil basis work in smaller districts.
The 12 districts that paid the most for superintendents’ salaries on a per-pupil basis each had less than 150 students, while 10 of the state’s 12 lowest-paid superintendents on a per-pupil basis administered districts with more than 14,000 students.
Brown said the fact that her district has fewer students does not necessarily lower the workload for her or her 31 staff members. Rather it requires everyone to chip in to ensure student success in a district that spans 400-square miles.
“Superintendents across the state have an enormous responsibility in front of them regardless of salary, and I don’t believe that addressing per-pupil pay is an accurate way to determine if administrator salaries are appropriate or a good use of funds,” Brown said.
Back to class
The lowest paid superintendents, both on an annual and per-pupil basis, are retirees who returned to duty.
Joe Kitchens, who oversees eight schools in the Western Heights district, which covers about 28 square-miles in southwest Oklahoma City, was the lowest-paid superintendent on a per-pupil basis last year at $5.47. Kitchens’ salary and benefits were $21,298, and the district had 3,896 students.
Kitchens said he retired a couple of years ago and returned as superintendent for less money. Retiring made sense, he knew he could save the district money and he knew others who’d done the same thing. Superintendents bear tremendous responsibility wherever they work, he said.
Jack Ritchie runs the Peavine school district, a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade district in eastern Oklahoma with 25 employees. The district had 133 students last year. Ritchie earned the least among superintendents last year. Ritchie’s salary and benefits were $13,736. He made $103.28 per pupil.
Like Kitchens, Ritchie retired and came back as superintendent. He voluntarily reduced his salary within six months of his 2012 return.
“Essentially, it’s a cost-saving measure, and I do it because I can because I’m retired, and I do have other income to rely on,” Ritchie said.
As a small district superintendent, Ritchie said he has to have his “thumb…on the pulse of every little aspect of the school,” from teacher evaluations to lawn mower repair. Every issue eventually comes to him.
“I don’t have people to delegate those responsibilities to,” Ritchie said.
Highs and lows
Superintendents of the state’s largest school districts, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, were the state’s highest-paid superintendents in terms of salary and benefits, but among the lowest-paid on a per-pupil basis.
Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Rob Neu’s salary and benefits totaled $306,805, a rate of about $6.77 per pupil, making him the second-highest paid superintendent in the state, but the second-lowest paid superintendent on a per-pupil basis. Neu’s office declined an interview request.
Keith Ballard, former superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools, was the highest paid superintendent in the state last year with salary and benefits that totaled $443,175, according to the state Education Department. That equates to about $10.80 per pupil, making Ballard among the lowest-paid superintendents in the state on a per-student basis.
Ballard retired June 30. He said he typically earned between $275,000 and $300,000 a year. His salary last year was higher because it included $40,000 of unused vacation, a one-time retention bonus of $70,000 and a nearly $35,000 performance bonus.
Ballard, who now works for the University of Oklahoma, said something has to be done about teacher salaries.
“I think that’s where we need to be looking for new monies to go,” Ballard said. “I think we are woefully behind the other states, and I think it’s having a serious impact on teacher shortages in this state.”
Cure or calamity?
Some lawmakers and public policy groups advocate consolidation and administrative cuts as a way to boost teacher pay.
Oklahoma had 5,656 districts at the time of statehood. In 2012-13, the state had 521 regular school districts, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Nationally, Oklahoma tied Missouri for the eighth-most regular school districts that year.
A 2013 report by the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a Tulsa-based policy think-tank, argued that cutting administration would not provide enough savings to significantly improve funding for instruction.
If Oklahoma reduced its administrative spending to match that of Hawaii, the lowest spending state at $31 per student, and put all of the savings into the classroom, Oklahoma would increase spending on instruction by less than 3 percent, the report found.
“It wouldn’t change Oklahoma’s ranking even by one spot when you look at what other states are spending on instruction,” said Gene Perry, the institute’s policy director.
Oklahoma K-12 schools ranked 48th for per-pupil spending and 48th for spending on instruction and school-level administration, according to the report. Oklahoma spent about $257 per student on district-level administration, 20th highest in the nation, according to the report.
Some forced-consolidation opponents contend that closing a school can cripple a small, rural community and force students to travel long distances to receive an education.
Don Ford, executive director of the Organization of Rural Oklahoma Schools, said local residents should be able to decide whether they have a school.
“Our organization was founded because we just didn’t think it was fair for someone to tell them they can’t have a school in their community,” Ford said. ” … If they want to consolidate, they can, but forced consolidation, I don’t think is any good. You destroy a school, you destroy a community.”