Superintendents retain huge salaries

AJC investigation: Schools deal with cutbacks, but pinch rarely reaches the top

It pays to be a school superintendent in metro Atlanta.

At least four local superintendents earn more than the vice president of the United States and one earns nearly as much as the president.

As school districts face unprecedented budget cuts and collective layoffs of more than 1,500 teachers, superintendent compensation remains hefty, even with recent decreases.

The highest-paid superintendent in the metro area is Gwinnett's Alvin Wilbanks, who earns $382,819, according to the Gwinnett school district. Wilbanks actually will make less than before because of furlough days.

Last year, Wilbanks earned $387,934, according to the open.georgia.gov Web site, which tracks government spending. He oversees 158,329 students and the largest school district in the state. In contrast, President Barack Obama makes $400,000 per year, according to the White House Web site.

Wilbanks' current compensation includes a retirement supplement of $42,000, a reimbursement for his contribution to his own retirement plan of $17,077, a payout of unused vacation pay of $23,317, an expense allowance of $14,400 and a transportation allowance of $18,000, according to the school district.

"I know that's a sensitive issue," said Stuart Bennett, Georgia Association of Educational Leaders executive director, speaking of superintendents' compensation. "But it's a job with a lot of responsibility and a lot of pressure. Superintendents have a tremendous responsibility on them. They are CEOs."

Gwinnett school district's total budget is $1.7 billion with 22,000 employees.

"The fact is they are a large company," Bennett said. "That might seem to be a high salary for education, but it's relatively meager for a company that size."

A superintendent's compensation is not easy to pinpoint. The compensation is spelled out in the contract, but amendments and other changes are hard to track. When The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked metro Atlanta school districts to disclose their superintendent's compensation, pay was broken down into different pieces or not at all. Some districts included retirement benefits, cellphone stipends and cashed-out, unused vacation time when calculating a superintendent's compensation. Others did not.

Beverly Hall, Atlanta Public Schools superintendent, earned $344,331 last year, the school district said. She is the second-highest paid superintendent in the metro area and runs one of the smallest school districts with 48,696 students. Hall's compensation includes a $78,115 bonus, a cellphone stipend of $1,200 and a car allowance of $666.

In 2008, Hall earned $352,097. That included an $82,000 bonus, $1,200 for the phone, $588 for the car and $5,000 in miscellaneous. Hall's current compensation is smaller because her bonus decreased by $4,000 and she did not receive the $5,000 in unspecified pay.

Hall's bonus fluctuates from year to year depending on whether she meets her performance targets, which are partially based on student achievement, Atlanta school district spokesman Keith Bromery said.

"She didn't meet all of them," Bromery said. "We set a high bar here for student performance. She can't achieve 100 percent of them in most instances."

Hall's compensation was higher in records kept by open.georgia.gov than the school district listed: $353,710 in 2008 and $389,314.56 in 2009. Those figures came from payroll data supplied by the school district to the state auditor.

Hall's compensation is about six times more than the average Atlanta teacher's salary of $57,740. Wilbanks' compensation is seven times more than the average Gwinnett teacher's salary of $55,795.

In DeKalb County, former Superintendent Crawford Lewis earned $287,992. That's more than Vice President Joe Biden, whose reported earnings were $276,463.

Clayton County's superintendent earns about $276,629, still more than Biden. Fulton County's superintendent earns $260,483, including $13,675 in a retirement allowance, $9,600 in car allowance and $12,000 in expense allowance.

Cobb County's superintendent, who runs the second-largest district in the state, earns $216,697, which includes a car allowance. That's more than Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, who earned $139,339, according to open.georgia.gov.

Cobb is reeling from potentially the deepest classroom cuts in the metro area, with 579 teaching positions and 56 para-professionals among the job losses.

Cobb superintendent Fred Sanderson took a 2 percent pay cut and five furlough days, and his compensation dropped from $224,494 to $216,697 this year, district spokesman Jay Dillon said. Cobb did not offer details of Sanderson's compensation package.

Sanderson had $41,515 in unused vacation time through last summer, according to a document supplied by a Cobb School Board member. The district will pay for unused vacation time when an employee retires or resigns. This perk is extended to 1,547 employees, including high-ranking central office staff, custodians and other personnel, but not teachers. Last year, Cobb paid $605,965 in accrued vacation to 146 retirees, or $4,150 per retiree, Dillon said.

Sanderson is not overpaid when you consider the metro area, said Connie Jackson, Cobb County Association of Educators president. Superintendents of schools with enrollment between 100,000 to 199,000 had average earnings of $271,000, according to a Council of the Great City Schools survey. Cobb's enrollment is 106,630.

Rick Welkis, a Cobb County chiropractor who is running for a school board position, blames Cobb's current budget crisis on poor leadership and said school leaders have been paid too much.

"We have to clean house at the top and find more qualified people who are going to do the right job," Welkis said. "It's just crazy to pay these people this much money and the performance just isn't there."

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