Punchback: Answering Critics

Why I Make What I Do

by SUSAN S. CLARK

When the budget crisis began soon after I came to the Peach County schools in central Georgia as superintendent, I predicted that, as fiscal conditions worsened, my salary and whether I make too much would become a popular topic of conversation.

I have been in school administration for 32 years and have seen this happen in other school districts in other states. So I spent some time deciding how I would respond. Being first and foremost a teacher, I decided to educate people about a school superintendent’s duties and responsibilities, along with providing the information they were seeking. So here goes.

Susan ClarkSusan S. Clark



My salary is as follows:
$ 145,000 base salary
$ 14,012 expenses and auto allowance
$ 10,000 403(b) contribution
$ 21,830 retirement and insurance
$ 190,842 total

Being superintendent is equivalent to being CEO of a medium-size company. (We have 600-plus employees and 4,000-plus students.) However, we have one key difference: We aren’t producing inanimate objects. We are working with other human beings to produce successful, productive citizens from a fluid raw material, children, who over the course of the production effort move from squirming, energetic, mostly happy little youngsters to squirming, energetic, often confused and sometimes emotionally wrecked pre-teens to energetic, vacillating, curious, sometimes rebellious, uncertain teenagers still struggling for their own independence.

The job is a little like nailing Jell-O to the wall.

Omniscient and Omnipresent
The superintendent must know about teaching and learning, budgeting, finance, special education, personnel, school district policy, school law, facilities, maintenance, custodial services, taxes, political elections, technology, interpersonal relationships, psychology, counseling, workers’ compensation, unemployment, athletics, extracurricular activities, transportation, energy conservation, parenting, theology, managing school boards, risk management and — from time to time — how to change a burned-out ballast, how to unplug a stopped-up commode, and how to remove a family of skunks from under a portable building. (Yes, I’ve really done that.)

Being the superintendent of a school district is like living at Wal-Mart. People assume you are open 24/7 and think nothing of banging on your door at any insane hour, cornering you at church, or sitting down with you in a restaurant to explain why your board policy on graduation won’t work for their child, and yes, even pouring out their issues with the school system while you are in a hospital bed and still on pain medication. (I freely admit I don’t remember much of that conversation.)

Also, anyone can call the news media and tell them anything at all about you or the school district. It can be as ludicrous as a rumor that you are harboring an alien in your office restroom to a claim someone spotted you with a school district stapler in your car. True or not, a superintendent becomes the star of the 5 o’clock news. Of course, being a media darling can never exceed the distinct privilege of being the exclusive topic of online bloggers. I’m told (I don’t read their blogs) that bloggers think they have all the answers. If that’s the case, the only thing I can’t understand is why they spend their effort providing their insights anonymously from afar — instead of stepping up and working with the school system.

Also, the on-the-job hazards are high. They include being run over by an irate person who doesn’t want to wait in line to pick up his child, verbal thrashings (I’m amazed at the words that spew out of some mouths), neck strain (from working on the latest paperwork from the state education department while talking on the telephone with at least five people lined up outside your door) and various stress-related illnesses common among those who live in a glass office.

Finally, the shelf life of superintendents isn’t long. The average tenure for superintendents in Peach County over the last 10 years has been about 16 months. Nationally, the picture is only slightly brighter. It’s hard for a school district to race to the top of anything when the lead dog keeps changing.

My Decision to Laugh
All that said, I still love the kids and the job. I humbly invite people to follow me around for a week (I remind them that means 24/7, but I do have a lovely guest room equipped with the ever-present cell phone), then re-evaluate their position on whether I make too much.

In the final analysis, we superintendents can either laugh or cry about the situations we confront each day. When I am criticized personally, I choose to laugh. All of our salaries are public information anyway, should anyone care to know.

But in all seriousness, things are miserable for many people nationwide. People have lost jobs everywhere. I do cry about that. I’ve encouraged my community to try lifting others up instead of tearing them down, because we really do help ourselves when we are helping someone else.

Susan Clark is superintendent of the Peach County Schools in Fort Valley, Ga. E-mail: sclark@peachschools.org