How Much are California K-12 Administrators Really Paid?

We often hear how about the importance of using data when making decisions, and here at Transparent California we could not agree more. Particularly when decisions being made have great impact on funding the education of our children.

More than 75 percent of education spending goes to employee compensation, which makes our database a vital resource in understanding how that money is being spent.

Our first post in this series (“How Much are California K-12 Teachers Really Paid”) examined teacher compensation. In this post we’ll use that data again to look at another group of employees – education administrators.

We often hear how choosing to be in education means taking a vow of poverty and making great sacrifices in their personal lives. Perhaps true in the past, but now a career in education administration no longer results in a lifetime of searching couch cushions for quarters to buy groceries.

How are the paychecks of our superintendents, assistant superintendents, principals, directors and other members of school district management doing in the modern era?

At Transparent California, our database encompasses nearly 25 million records detailing $1.7 trillion in compensation provided to public employees. This includes more than 8 million records from public school districts. Verifiable, hard data directly from their own payroll records.

Our 2020 data contains records on 469,072 full time K-12 employees, of which 25,591 (5.5 percent) are identified by job title as administrators. And the results?

District and school administrators show a median annual pay of $128,718, and total compensation (including the cost of benefits) of $163,937.

But that’s all administrators – from the director of curriculum to the superintendent. What does the compensation of superintendents only look like?

We have individual data on 907 district and county superintendents, and these numbers show us the average pay of a superintendent was $199,436, with a total compensation (including retirement and healthcare benefits) of $244,745.

Now, those are big numbers, but being superintendent of a school district is a big job. The superintendent is the CEO of the district, how does their pay compare with other CEOs?

For this we can turn to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which says as of May 2021 the average wage of a CEO in California was $230,730, about $31,294 more than the superintendent average. That doesn’t account for the additional compensation public employees receive in pension and healthcare benefits (more on that in a future installment of this series), but it does appear our superintendents are “fairly paid” in K-12 education.

If there is any fundamental issue that differs from private industry CEO pay, our K-12 superintendents rarely have any performance-based component in their compensation plan. In private industry, it would be very rare to find a CEO making $200K without some component of compensation tied to meeting goals and metrics showing positive impact on their organization.

Which brings us to one largely unreported aspect of administrator pay, the “me too” raise.

Somehow it has become “traditional” in most school districts when administrators agree to a bonus raise for a labor group (typically teachers), that same percentage raise is then applied to themselves. The very people “negotiating” that raise.

This is called the “me too” raise, and is one of the most blatantly unethical and borderline corrupt practices in school district compensation.

Imagine yourself a superintendent making $200K, across the table from a labor group that wants the maximum possible bonus raise. They’re demanding a 6percent bonus raise. You’ve looked at the district financials, you know revenue is limited and you’d like to have more to spend on programs that benefit kids.

But holding the line won’t be easy:

  • You’ve already seen parents at the podium during board meetings berating the district for “disrespecting” teachers by not giving them what they want;
  • Most school boards are controlled by board members elected with union support, so you’re facing a board that is likely on the union’s side;
  • You will probably earn the undying enmity of your entire administrative team, who would lose their share of the “me too” bonus;
  • and saying “no” would hurt your own pocketbook. A 6-percent raise for everyone would mean your own pay would increase $12,000 a year. Blocking that increase would impede your ability to purchase that new Mercedes or take the family on that long vacation to the Cayman Islands this year.

It takes a lot of fortitude for a superintendent to stand tall and go against all the above pressures to ensure more money goes to kids.

Which is why it rarely happens.

Most frequently our superintendents take the easy route, agreeing to whatever demands the union has, sitting quietly through the meeting where the board approves their “me too” raise and then making an appointment at the Mercedes dealership or booking that Cayman flight.

Parents and community members need to consider whether they think this is right. Do they want to support the “me too” raise and give higher pay to administrators for doing nothing except being there? They need to go in armed with knowledge of what administrator compensation really looks like, knowing every dollar given to employees is a dollar that can’t be spent on improvements with more direct impact on the education of our kids.

What if your superintendent simply had a portion of their pay dependent on improving the education of our kids? Imagine that – a personal stake in making the education of our kids better and spending taxpayer money wisely.

Perhaps nothing but a pipe dream but getting there starts with knowledge of the facts. If you’d like to see the specific compensation for administrators in your district, go to Transparent California and look them up. If the latest data is not yet available, be sure to subscribe to your districts’ data and you’ll be notified when it’s posted.

And of course, sign up for our blog so you will be updated as we post future installments in this series.

Stay tuned!

Todd Maddison is the Director of Research for the public pay watchdog website Transparent California, and a parent activist working to improve K12 education in our state.

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