NC superintendents' contracts packed with perks
Posted August 26, 2013
Updated August 30, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina superintendents are among the highest paid public school employees in the state, but their six-figure salaries aren't the only way they're compensated. Many receive thousands of dollars in bonuses each year, and some get special perks, such as cars, gym memberships, money for mortgage payments and extra vacation time.
WRAL.com examined the contracts of all 115 public school superintendents in the state and found that some receive more benefits than others. The contracts also reveal the lengths school boards are willing to go to get or keep a superintendent, including one school system that agreed to provide its new leader with a house and install a nearly $4,300 fence for her dogs – paid for with taxpayer money.
Under North Carolina law, superintendents' salaries and contracts are a matter of public record – available to anyone upon request. Most of the contracts follow the same format and spell out the superintendent's contract length, compensation and benefits, including vacation time, travel allowances and health insurance.
The average North Carolina superintendent makes about $156,000 a year and oversees a district with about 12,500 students. Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wake County school systems have the highest paid superintendents in the state – at $288,000 and $275,000 per year, respectively. But higher salaries don't necessarily mean better benefits.
Rent-free house seals the deal for Currituck superintendent
In Currituck County, a coastal community that serves about 3,900 public school students, school board leaders tried to lure Allison Sholar to their school system in June 2011, but their salary offer wasn't cutting it.
"They were only offering me what I was making (as a superintendent) in Pender County. It wasn't going to be cost-effective," Sholar said in recent interview with WRAL.com.
Currituck stepped up its offer and agreed to let Sholar live rent-free in a house on school property, previously used by superintendents, principals and teachers. As part of the agreement, the board also promised to pay her utilities, including phone service, and allow her three dogs – a black Labrador and two mixed-breeds – to live in the house.
On Sept. 12, 2011, Sholar began her new, $134,000-a-year job as Currituck County Schools' superintendent, where she still works. However, she no longer lives in the school system's house. Sholar says she decided to move out about a year later after her son, who's in his 20s, came to live with her and had trouble adjusting to the loud sounds and lack of privacy that come with living near a school.
On Jan. 14 of this year, the board noted Sholar's decision to leave the house and amended her contract to pay her an extra $1,200 a month since she gave up the benefit of living in the house, which has since been turned into office space.
Sholar says her unique contract is a testament to Currituck County's close-knit, caring community and says locals wouldn't be surprised by her benefits.
"I guess Currituck County was trying to be really creative with what they were offering," she said. "It's indicative of a family atmosphere and people looking out for each other. I was appreciative of that opportunity."
Dare superintendent: 'It's expensive to move'
About 40 miles south of Currituck County, another unique superintendent contract was in the works in May 2000. Dare County Schools had narrowed its applicants from seven semifinalists to three and finally chose Sue Burgess, who was working as the superintendent in Spotsylvania County Schools in Virginia at the time.
When it came time to negotiate her contract, Burgess told the Dare school board attorney that she needed help making the move from Virginia to North Carolina's coast. To ease her concerns, the board agreed to an extensive benefits package totaling more than $20,000 that covered her house hunting trips, moving expenses and helped pay for her old house in Virginia and her new house in Dare County.
On top of her $110,000-a-year salary, the Dare school board agreed to pay the mortgage on Burgess' Virginia home for up to six months or until the house sold – whichever happened first. The house took nine months to sell, so the board paid her $1,789 mortgage for six months, for a total of $10,734.
"It was certainly a help to me to have six months' assistance. I would have liked to have more than six months, but six months helped me," Burgess said.
The board also paid for four house hunting trips for Burgess and her husband, including their travel and lodging expenses, and paid $10,000 in closing costs on the house they purchased in Dare County. The contract also covered Burgess' relocation fees, including packing, moving and temporary storage of her household items.
"It reduced the financial burden of relocating," Burgess said. "It’s a lot more expensive to live in Dare County than Spotsylvania."
Hyde superintendent: 'My, what an error'
One of the seemingly most lucrative superintendent contracts in North Carolina belongs to Randolph Latimore Sr., the leader of Hyde Public Schools – the second smallest school system in the state. Latimore's contract states that he "shall be paid the sum of 49,199.67 per month," or about $590,000 per year – more than twice the salary of Charlotte-Mecklenburg's superintendent.
"My, what an error. My monthly pay is $9,166.67," Latimore wrote. "I can only attribute that figure to a typo. Thank you for catching that error. A salary of that magnitude for such a rural, small, and economically challenged community would be totally unacceptable and unprofessional."
Meanwhile, Wake County's superintendent – the second-highest paid superintendent in the state at $275,000 – is at the bottom of the list, making about $1.83 for each of his 150,544 students.
Superintendents' salaries come from two sources – a state portion, which is based on the number of students in the district, and a local portion, which is set by the local school board and varies greatly by district. Superintendents can also receive longevity pay and extra money for advanced degrees and certificates.
Allison Schafer, director of policy and legal counsel for the North Carolina School Boards Association, says there is no statutory cap on what local school boards can pay their superintendents. There is also no shortage of creative perks school boards can offer.
"It all depends on how bad the board wants that person," Schafer said. "The idea is to attract the best superintendent you can."
Negotiating salary, contract length, travel allowances and moving expenses are fairly common, according to Schafer, but not every superintendent focuses on pay.
"Sometimes, instead of salary, people want money paid into an annuity, usually people closer to retirement," she said. Others might ask for perks that benefit their family, such as health coverage for a spouse and children.
Mooresville superintendent's contract focuses on family
Family was on Superintendent Mark Edwards' mind when he negotiated his contract with Mooresville Graded School District in February 2007. With his wife, daughter and son still living in Alabama, Edwards asked the board for more vacation days so he could visit his family for long weekends while his children finished out their school year.
The board granted him 20 extra vacation days, more than most superintendents receive.
"I wanted to drive back and forth," Edwards said, noting that he made the seven- to eight-hour drive because he wanted to watch his children's soccer and T-ball games.
Last year, the board agreed to increase his extra vacation days to 22, more than any other superintendent in the state. Edwards says he mostly uses those days to help care for sick family members.
"It's really family for me that's the motivation," he said.
This past June, the board added a health care benefits clause to Edwards' contract that reimburses him up to $5,000 per year to help cover any uninsured medical, dental and eye care bills for himself, his wife and children.
It's benefits like that, Edwards says, that make him want to stay with the Mooresville school district, despite being heavily recruited this year after he was named the national Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators.
"I feel lucky to be here. I’m thankful," Edwards said. "As you get older, you realize if you’re in a good situation you should be grateful for it."
Wake superintendent asks for security clause
When the Wake County Public School System hired its new superintendent this summer, the school board stuck with its standard contract, which it had used for previous superintendents, including Tony Tata and Del Burns.
"We don’t really deviate too much from that model or that framework," said school board Chairman Keith Sutton, who handled most of the negotiations over email.
But new Superintendent Jim Merrill was able to negotiate one new perk – a security detail for himself and his family "in the event of public controversy or threat," according to the contract, which doesn't spell out what kind of security will be provided.
Merrill, who declined an interview for this story, had a similar clause in his contract while serving as superintendent with Virginia Beach City Public Schools, according to Sutton. He is one of four superintendents in North Carolina with a security clause. The other three are Caldwell, Guilford and Rockingham county schools.
Besides a security detail, the Wake school board also agreed to provide Merrill with other benefits, including $900 per month for travel expenses, 12 extra vacation days per year and reimbursement for a life insurance policy worth $550,000 – two times his salary.
"I don’t know that there’s too much that’s in there that’s creative. It’s pretty bland," Sutton said. "We try to stay away from (creative perks) and just be good stewards of the taxpayer dollars."
State superintendent: We need to attract the most competent people
As leader of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, State Superintendent June Atkinson is responsible for verifying that each local superintendent is qualified for the job.
As an elected official, she is the only superintendent in the state without a contract. Her annual salary of $124,676 is set by the General Assembly and is lower than nearly 80 percent of the local superintendents' salaries.
"That has always been a discussion point ... how can you get local superintendents to run (for state superintendent) when there is a difference in salary?" Atkinson said.
Despite her difference in pay, she says local superintendents lead complicated enterprises, which she compares to CEOs running private companies.
"(Negotiating skills) reflect what will be covered in some of the contracts," Atkinson said. "It would mirror CEOs in the private sector negotiating what’s important for them ... We need to make sure we can attract the most competent people we can, and money is a part of that."