Sunday, April 3, 2011

Superintendents' salaries under scrutiny; is Santee Cooper next?

There's a bedrock principle that free marketeers hold to like Moses held to his tablets: Free of regulation, the market will resolve itself.

Embedded in that principle is the notion that money is intelligent -- or, more to the point, those who know what to do with money are imbued with a divine intelligence that the rest of us lack -- and that regulation, the attempts by the unintelligent to artificially control the market or suppress its power, is evil.

A lot of South Carolina's fiscal conservatives call themselves free-market capitalists, or free marketeers. Former Governor Mark Sanford couldn't get through a State of the State address without referring to his free market principles. So far, Governor Nikki Haley seems to tread Sanford's same path.

So I'm amused when the free marketeers of our legislature selectively apply their principles, as in the case of school superintendents and their compensation.

Remember: Free market principles dictate that a school superintendent should collect precisely what the market will bear, no more and no less.

Lawmakers, on the other hand, may decide differently.

The total compensation package for future school superintendents in South Carolina would be at least $150,000 but no more than $170,000 under a House bill introduced this month.
“If they can’t survive on $150 or $170 grand a year, then something is wrong,” Rep. Joseph Jefferson, D-Berkeley, who sponsored the bill (H. 3761) to limit superintendents’ compensation, told The Nerve when contacted last week.

Compensation is defined under Jefferson’s bill as “all forms of payment extended to the superintendent including, but not limited to, salary, fringe benefits, and professional and personal membership fees.”

I do not presume that Jefferson is a free marketeer, as I do not know him. But I'm curious to see how his bill fares among those in his chamber.

It's certainly a turn from the usual. Arguments over educators' salaries have traditionally focused on classroom teachers, those crooks with advanced degrees and many years of experience shaking down the taxpayer for country club membership dues. It's a switch to see superintendents now in the klieg lights.

The state’s top-paid superintendent as of last year was Phinnize Fisher of Greenville County Schools, whose annual pay was $218,167, department records show. Richland District 2 Superintendent Katie Brochu was the second-highest paid superintendent, earning $213,244 annually, followed by Beaufort County School District Superintendent Valerie Truesdale ($205,600), and Horry County School District Superintendent Cindy Elsberry ($205,000).
Another 56 received less than $150,000 in salary; of those, eight earned between $140,000 and $150,000. The median salary for full-time, year-round superintendents was $130,000, according to department records.

Notice there's no examination of how many students are enrolled in these school districts, or how large the employment rolls of those districts, to give the reader any sense of context.

Since we live in an age when so many public services are told to conform to the rules and culture of private enterprise, I wonder what would be the comparable salary of a plant manager who manages an equivalent number of professionals, with the same kinds of college degrees and certifications? I can't really think of a comparable position in the private sector, but military commanders who oversee the work of dozens or hundreds of officers -- military personnel with college and advanced degrees -- might be similar. I wonder what they earn?

One district spokesperson acquainted with free market principles gave a delightful answer to the reporter filing this story:

“From my perspective, compensation should be competitive and based on various factors including size of school district, scope of responsibilities, etc.,” Oby Lyles, Greenville County schools spokesman, said in a written response this week to The Nerve. “Our superintendent’s salary is based on a market study.”

The same spokesman pointed out that his superintendent had collected no salary increases in the past three years, like many of the school district employees at the school level, thanks to the economy.

Contacted last week by The Nerve, Scott Price, attorney for the South Carolina School Boards Association, said that “there seems to be no shortage of bills that basically micromanage school operations.”

“It seems to me a number of House members need to think about running for school boards,” Price said.

As for capping superintendents’ compensation, Price said, “If you want to get good superintendents, the market is going to drive that.”

If public employee salaries are going under scrutiny and attack wholesale, I wonder when leaders will get to the upper echelons of Santee Cooper and the certain universities' athletics departments?

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I find it unbelievable that they are capping superintendents' salaries. Could it be because many make more than those wanting to pass such a bill? What happened to local control? Each of these superintendents answers to a school board of elected officials. They have been elected by the public to make these decisions. This well-written article states that Dr. Phinnize Fisher does make the highest salary in the state. What the article does not state is that she leads the largest district in the state and also was a finalist for National Superintendent of the Year. How will districts attract such talent if we are not offering competitive salaries. I challenge Rep. Jefferson to find a CEO that manages thousands of employees and is responsible for the lives of so many others that doesn't get paid accordingly.