Tuesday, March 21, 2006


The governor of the State of Nebraska makes $85,000 a year. That’s far LESS than any of the five public school superintendents involved in the controversy over whether the Omaha Public Schools should take over most of its suburban neighboring districts. Meanwhile, the governor’s salary is $50,000 a year LESS than the highest-ranking K-12 education official in the state, the state education commissioner.

If salaries are supposed to communicate worth, authority, esteem and importance, wuzzup wit dis?

Superintendent salaries, as reported to the Nebraska Department of Education, put the OPS turf war into perspective, when you consider what’s at stake personally for these top district chiefs and their staffs. No wonder feelings have gotten so hurt and defenses have walled off dialogue and the hope for a creative resolution outside court. Big bucks are involved, personally and professionally, that’s why.

Note that these figures are strictly salaries, and don’t include other compensation and perquisites, which can add up to a sizeable amount of money on top:

$218,000 -- Omaha Public Schools Superintendent John Mackiel

$187,600 -- Westside Community Schools Superintendent Ken Bird

$170,000 -- Millard Public Schools Superintendent Keith Lutz

$140,392 -- Ralston Public Schools Superintendent Virginia Moon

$130,000 -- Elkhorn Public Schools Superintendent Roger Breed

It should be noted that the State Board of Education has authorized a salary of $145,000 this school year for State Education Commissioner Doug Christensen, who is appointed, not elected, and serves at their pleasure, and that’s going up by $10,000 come July 1. In the recent past, the commissioner’s salary has ranked him as the highest-paid state employee, except for a few psychiatrists in the Regional Center mental-health system, which is a statement in and of itself.

Note, too, that all of those school districts listed above have assistant or associate superintendents making upwards of $100,000 apiece, for the most part. That just adds to the pressure and intrigue over which district chiefs will keep their jobs or see their “holdings” shrink or enlarge as the OPS battle shakes down.

Now, then, for the comparisons. Salaries paid to the state legislators who disburse the lion’s share of our state tax dollars to these districts and decide many of the most crucial policy matters affecting K-12 education: $12,000.

Note, too, the lack of any salaries paid to the elected officials – the State Board of Education and the various local school board members – charged with holding the state and local superintendents accountable.

So what’s to be done about this situation?

Well, maybe it’s time to state the obvious: we have things bass-ackwards here. We give away the leadership jobs with the high pay by appointment, without a vote of the people. And then for the jobs that we choose democratically and make people really jump through hoops to get, we don’t pay a living wage.

Now, like everybody else, I want the best school leadership available, and I don’t even mind paying them big bucks, as long as we get what we’re paying for.

So I propose that we follow the lead of Southern states such as Florida and Mississippi, and start electing our school superintendents. That goes for our state schools chief. It’s atrocious that that person isn’t elected, and makes more than $50,000 more per year than our governor. What were we thinking, when we let that be an appointed job?

Ah, you say, but electing such a high-priority job as a school district superintendent will politicize it. Yes, well, maybe that’s the point: are you happy right now that voters and taxpayers have absolutely no “pull” about who gets these jobs or what they do in them? Could political pressure on student achievement be to a school superintendent what the bottom line on a P&L statement is to a CEO?

Could the mess we’re in over OPS be any MORE political than it already is?

Could it be that the best way to hold people accountable is the way we do it in the private sector?

Could it be that requiring a superintendent to have classroom teaching experience is an anachronism these days? Maybe we’ve been shooting ourselves in the foot by not opening up school management jobs to the best managers, not just the best ones that come up through the ranks of schools.

Nobody’s saying that the people now holding these important, high-paying jobs in Nebraska aren’t worth their salt.

But how can we say we really do have the best people in place? Maybe we do. But maybe we don’t. Maybe the racial achievement gap within OPS, and the annexation controversy, and the disturbing numbers of students who can’t read at grade level, and the huge chasm between rosy state assessment scores and not-so-hot national assessment scores for Nebraska pupils are all signals that it’s time for a change.

Maybe these problems aren’t so much with our students or our teachers, but with the managers we pay so handsomely to prevent the very things we’re seeing.

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