Pay Cap Proposed for School Officials

March 24, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveThe total compensation package for future school superintendents in South Carolina would be at least $150,000 but no more than $170,000 under a House bill introduced this month.

A separate House resolution would encourage, though it would not require, the state’s 85 school districts to lay off their highest-paid employees first in tough budget times.

“If they can’t survive on $150 or $170 grand a year, then something is wrong,” Rep. Joseph Jefferson, D-Berkeley, who sponsored the bill (H. 3761) to limit superintendents’ compensation, told The Nerve when contacted last week.

Compensation is defined under Jefferson’s bill as “all forms of payment extended to the superintendent including, but not limited to, salary, fringe benefits, and professional and personal membership fees.”

As of the end of 2010, at least a dozen superintendents earned more than $170,000 annually, not including benefits, according to salary figures from the S.C. Department of Education.

Another 56 received less than $150,000 in salary; of those, eight earned between $140,000 and $150,000. The median salary for full-time, year-round superintendents was $130,000, according to department records.

Department spokesman Jim Foster told The Nerve last week that his agency does not keep information on total compensation packages given to superintendents.

The state’s top-paid superintendent as of last year was Phinnize Fisher of Greenville County Schools, whose annual pay was $218,167, department records show. Richland District 2 Superintendent Katie Brochu was the second-highest paid superintendent, earning $213,244 annually, followed by Beaufort County School District Superintendent Valerie Truesdale ($205,600), and Horry County School District Superintendent Cindy Elsberry ($205,000).

Fisher, who oversees the state’s largest school district with nearly 70,000 students, also receives, according to information provided by the school district to The Nerve:

  • $1,000-per-month car allowance;
  • An annual annuity contribution equal to 18 percent of Fisher’s salary, or $39,270; annuities usually are insurance contracts that are designed to provide payments on typically low-yielding investments at specific times, often after retirement.
  • Fully paid personal health insurance, meaning Fisher doesn’t have to pay the employee share;
  • A $350,000 term life insurance policy; and
  • Disability insurance equal to 66.6 percent of Fisher’s salary, or $145,299.

“From my perspective, compensation should be competitive and based on various factors including size of school district, scope of responsibilities, etc.,” Oby Lyles, Greenville County schools spokesman, said in a written response this week to The Nerve. “Our superintendent’s salary is based on a market study.”

In an earlier written response to The Nerve, Lyles said that Fisher has received no salary increases since July 1, 2008, “due to economic conditions.”

Superintendents in larger districts typically receive higher total salaries, though their counterparts in smaller districts often earn far more on a per-pupil basis. An earlier analysis by The Nerve of Department of Education salary and 2010-11 enrollment data, for example, found the following five superintendents with the highest per-pupil salaries as of the end of last year:

  • Everette Dean, Marion District 7 – $100,665 annual salary, $160 per pupil;
  • Bertha McCants, Florence District 4 – $110,000 annual salary, $139 per pupil;
  • Teresa Pope, Barnwell District 19 – $110,000 annual salary, $136 per pupil;
  • Rose Wilder, Clarendon District 1 – $114,739 annual salary, $133 per pupil; and
  • Deonia Simmons, Hampton District 2 – $120,000 annual salary, $120 per pupil.

Jefferson said his bill would not affect current superintendents’ compensation packages, adding that his proposed caps “would be fair across the board.”

“Maybe my bill will make it to File 13, but if these people really want to save taxpayer money, I think it’s a pretty good bill,” Jefferson said.

The bill, which was introduced on March 1, was referred to the House Ways and Means Committee chaired by Rep. Dan Cooper, R-Anderson.

Under a separate, non-binding House resolution (H. 3728), school districts would be encouraged to “consider those employees who earn the highest salaries in the district before terminating those employees who earn lesser pay” in times of “budget constraints.”

“It’s only fair that you start from the top down rather than the bottom up,” the resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, told The Nerve last week.

Gilliard said he decided to introduce the resolution after Charleston County School District Superintendent Nancy McGinley was “talking about laying off 70 or more custodians.” He said since introducing his bill on Feb. 23, McGinley has “kind of backed off,” and instead, announced she would hold a series of community meetings to discuss potential budget cuts.

“I’m hoping that it would be a model for the rest of the state,” Gilliard said about the community meetings.

The Nerve last week contacted the Charleston County School District – the state’s second largest with about 42,000 students – but did not receive a response before publication of this story.

McGinley’s annual salary as of Dec. 31, excluding benefits, was $191,084, according to Department of Education figures.

Gilliard’s resolution was referred to the House Committee on Education and Public Works, chaired by Rep. Phil Owens, R-Pickens.

In a related matter, The Nerve in January reported about a bill (H. 3297) introduced by Rep. Phillip Lowe, R-Florence, that would ban the state’s 85 school districts from offering severance packages to fired superintendents exceeding the superintendent’s annual salary, unless approved by district voters in a special election.

The bill, which has 31 co-sponsors, has remained in the House Committee on Education and Public Works.

Contacted last week by The Nerve, Scott Price, attorney for the South Carolina School Boards Association, said that “there seems to be no shortage of bills that basically micromanage school operations.”

“It seems to me a number of House members need to think about running for school boards,” Price said.

As for capping superintendents’ compensation, Price said, “If you want to get good superintendents, the market is going to drive that.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.