Feature

Pay for Performance

Bonuses for superintendents are on the increase across the country, but not all are convinced of the merits by SCOTT LaFEE


The hours are long, but the pay is good: Six figures in many places.

Yet ask any school superintendent about what they do and they quickly will tell you every cent of that substantial salary--$101,519 on average, according to the Educational Research Service's 1997-98 report on salaries and wages in public schools--is hard earned.

Not only do superintendents typically work virtually every day of the year (thanks to the plentiful homework), but the demands of the job seem to change daily. In addition, the list of challenges and problems they face is endless and there's never a dearth of critics.

Running a school district, most superintendents would say, is a lot like managing a large company in the private sector.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that top school administrators and school boards across the country are increasingly taking up a tool better known in the business world: the performance bonus.

"My sense is that merit pay is becoming a more common component in superintendents' contracts," said Ronald K. Brown, director of professional standards for the Association of California School Administrators. "I'm seeing it more and more."

In Connecticut, 10 percent of the state's 148 superintendents had some provision in their contracts for merit pay during the last school year. In Alexandria, Va., Superintendent Herb Berg recently signed a four-year contract extension that provides up to $30,000 in performance bonuses, mostly tied to student achievement goals. And when Ben Canada signed on as superintendent in Portland, Ore., last year, he received a contract for $155,000 annually plus a $15,000 bonus incentive for fulfilling several performance goals.

In Texas, where the average tenure of a superintendent is roughly five years and the competition is fierce for qualified candidates, pay incentives are being used not just to reward performance but to make contracts more appealing.

One of the most widely publicized contracts in the state belongs to Rod Paige, superintendent of the 207,000-student Houston Independent School District. His base salary is $165,000, which is less than some of his Texas peers earn, but he can earn an extra $25,000 in bonuses each year by achieving specified goals. For example, he receives an additional $1,000 to $2,000 for each 1/10th of a percent improvement in the district's scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills beyond the scores of all students tested.

In the 13,100-student Brazosport, Texas, district, Superintendent Gerald Anderson's new contract calls for a $10,000 bonus if 70 percent of the district's students pass the statewide assessment, average daily attendance does not fall below 95 percent and the dropout rate is less than 3« percent. The bonus can reach $30,000 if the dropout rate falls below 1 percent and 90 percent of the students pass the state test.

Anderson, however, cannot use any bonus money he earns until he completes his contract with the district in 2001.

Differing Opinions
To be sure, the notion of linking a superintendent's income to contractual goals is controversial. Skeptics have questioned its efficacy. Critics say the idea simply has no place in education. Even its supporters and those most likely to benefit appear ambivalent.

A nationwide survey conducted by George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and The American School Board Journal reported last year that while 55 percent of board members believed pay-for-performance for superintendents was likely to help boost student achievement, 65 percent of the superintendents believed it would not.

That's hardly a consensus, and interviews with superintendents around the country reinforce the fact that when the subject is pay-for-performance, opinions are all over the map. At one end of the spectrum are superintendents like Jan Witthuhn, head of Mounds View Public Schools in St. Paul, Minn., who likes the idea of merit pay.

"I asked that it to be part of my contract; I did so because I think we're going through a lot of change right now and this was one way to demonstrate leadership," she says. "What better way to do that than to say part of my compensation will be based on goals mutually agreed upon by myself and the board."

At the other end are peers like Howard Sosne, who oversees the Pitt County schools in North Carolina. Sosne says: "My feeling is that I'm going to work as hard as I can to achieve what the board wants me to. I don't need to be induced with extra incentives."

Neither view is wrong, of course. What works for one person in one place doesn't necessarily work for another person in another place. The fact is, determining whether a pay-for-performance contract will further the cause of better education or hurt it depends on many things, among them the superintendent, the school board, the state of the district and how the community perceives the work and value of education.

In other words, it's a highly personal, highly variable issue that tends to generate difficult questions, among them:

  • How does one decide the criteria for rewarding a superintendent?

  • How can any individual, even a superintendent, take credit and money for what is essentially the accomplishment of many people?

  • The Assessment Bugaboo
    Setting criteria is perhaps the hardest question because the answer is not the same everywhere.

    "You obviously want to reward a superintendent based on measurable performance," says Brown of the California association. "The issue is what to measure--pupil performance, standard test scores, school openings, success in contract negotiations with unions, balancing the budget, new programs, dropout rates?"

    More specifically, say Brown and others, it's a question of priorities. What is most important? Is it something like districtwide pupil performance or building a new high school to relieve overcrowding? And who decides?

    "I think it's critical to sit down with your board and simply talk everything out, to get a sense of where they want to go and for them to hear your ideas," says David Cressy, superintendent in Cheshire, Conn.

    It also means not rushing into anything, he adds. In his first year at Cheshire, Cressy declined the board's proposal to establish pay-for-performance goals, even though he had no problem with the concept.

    "That first year as superintendent is mostly about becoming acclimated to the district," Cressy says. "There's a whole learning curve that must happen before you can move onto specifics."

    Now in his second year at Cheshire, Cressy spent a recent Sunday in seclusion with board members to exchange ideas and hammer out a list of performance-based goals. "We're still working on them so I can't say what exactly they'll be, but they will be fairly concrete, things involving personnel, finance and curriculum."

    By far, the most prevalent measuring stick on most superintendents' pay-for-performance contracts appears to be improved student achievement. This is not surprising. Better student achievement is what every superintendent works for. It is what parents and the public demand.

    But when student achievement is linked to financial reward, controversy and complications invariably arise. Part of the controversy stems from the notion that financial rewards are deserved by more than the leader at the top.

    Sharing the Wealth
    For this reason, superintendents need to be prepared to say why they alone should be rewarded for accomplishments to which many may have contributed.

    "When you do that it sends the wrong message," complains James Smith, superintendent of the Alief, Texas, Independent School District, just outside Houston. "What does a bonus for better test scores, given to the superintendent, say to everyone else, particularly the principals and teachers who do the front-line work? My own personal conviction is that merit pay for things like improved student achievement is a bad idea. It might be OK in other areas of leadership like school safety or basic administration, but when you get into instructional issues, superintendent bonuses can mean real bad morale problems for everybody else."

    David P. Sklarz agrees--with a few qualifications.

    The superintendent of the 8,900-student West Hartford, Conn., schools, Sklarz concedes, "It's a commonly accepted observation that the chief executive officer of a school district doesn't teach a single student." Yet he also argues that superintendents deserve such bonuses if they are part of a negotiated contract and have been earned.

    Sklarz recently received more than $16,000 in bonuses, plus a pay raise and extended contract for meeting contractual goals that included improved scores on the Connecticut Mastery Test and the state Academic Performance Test and Scholastic Assessment.

    "I don't apologize for (getting the money). My job is to help the district stay focused, to work with teachers to help them do their job well. It is the superintendent, after all, who works to provide the budget, the unified school goals, the support that every teacher and student needs to be successful in the classroom."

    But Sklarz also believes in sharing the wealth. "I'm also a supporter of performance incentives for other administrators. My executive team has them and I like the idea of using them for principals too. But so far they've been reluctant to participate and teachers have been outright opposed to the idea."

    In Sklarz's view, opposition to pay-for-performance tends to arise from suspicions that criteria like student achievement are biased, too hard to measure or simply inadequate to judge a central-office administrator. Teachers, he adds, also worry about the effect of merit pay on traditional teaching salary schedules and standards. "There has always been an emphasis on seniority and working your way through the system."

    Not all administrators, however, share Sklarz' perception of the situation. In the Mounds View district, Witthuhn says her cabinet-level colleagues have asked that their annual salary reviews and possible increases be based on performance and achievement of annual goals. More remarkable, she says, school principals also have agreed to a performance incentive plan that will be implemented in 1999.

    Some opposition to pay-for-performance, however, is much more fundamental. Some say merit pay for superintendents is simply plain wrong.

    "If you have to give your superintendent pay incentives to motivate him or her, you either have the wrong superintendent or you're not paying him or her enough in the first place," said Ken Baird, a trustee with the Hanford, Calif., Elementary School District.

    "It's my experience that people who are motivated by the money have a hard time selling their program," Baird says. "Everyone else knows about the incentive and assumes that their motives are focused on something other than the kids. Education used to be viewed as a calling. For the outstanding superintendent, it still is."

    Money Is Secondary
    By and large, superintendents interviewed for this story and elsewhere say pay-for-performance is not primarily a money issue. While a few top school administrators in the country have notably large bonus clauses in their contracts, some approaching 20 percent of their annual salary, the prevailing range is closer to 5 percent. And most respondents in the George Mason survey say pay-for-performance bonuses should be capped at 10 percent or less.

    "This isn't about money," said Witthuhn, whose contract allows for a pay incentive of up to 4 percent based on an end-of-year evaluation by the school board. "I'm not going to significantly change my philosophy or what I think needs to be done to simply make a few more dollars. That's not why I became a superintendent.

    "I think what we're doing here is trying to set up a whole new culture that's performance-based, a system that rewards improvement and innovation. Bonuses for superintendents is just one part of it."

    School boards benefit from pay-for-performance contracts as well, say advocates. Publicly establishing goals puts everybody on the same page, with the same expectations. It can help a board justify--or decline--bonuses or pay increments later, helping to deflate any public criticism.

    The bottom line, said Mark Sosne, superintendent of Pender County Public Schools in North Carolina (and the brother of Howard Sosne in Pitt County) is that whether pay-for performance works depends on those involved.

    Sosne's predecessor had incentive goals in his contract, but Sosne says he has purposefully avoided them. Part of the reason was that some of the language in his predecessor's contract ultimately caused problems for the school board. But more to the point, Sosne concedes he could not justify receiving something his teachers could not. "In North Carolina, there is a standard salary schedule for teachers. Merit pay for me felt unfair."

    Slow Progress
    But that may not always be the case. There has been much talk over the years in North Carolina about implementing pay-for-performance bonuses for school administrators.

    "A lot of what happens is state dependent," says Richard Schwartz, a Raleigh-based attorney who specializes in education law and has helped negotiate performance-based contracts. "Things are changing all the time with more districts coming on line."

    The subject of incentive pay for school district leaders remains much discussed among legislators in North Carolina. "Many school boards are pushing for it on the theory that before they can do something similar for teachers, they need to get the superintendent on board," Schwartz says.

    "I think we're moving in that direction," Mark Sosne says. "It's going to be slow and painful, but we'll get there."

    And when they do, no doubt there will be a reward.

    Scott Lafee is a staff writer with the San Diego Union-Tribune. E-mail: scott.lafee@uniontrib.com