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Tallman report wrongly compares school superintendents to “other” Kansas CEOs

Kansas Association of School Boards blogger Mark Tallman has published a series of reports on school administrators and their pay. The first installment compares school superintendents salaries to those of “other” Kansas CEOs. Not surprisingly, Tallman claims that “on average, Kansas school superintendents earn less than other chief executives in Kansas.”

That claim is problematic on multiple levels.

It’s not only that the data Tallman uses – from Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) – is insufficient and entirely misleading, it’s the underlying assumption that renders such a judgment meaningless on its face. That assumption is school superintendents are really CEOs in the truest, practical application of the term.

Tallman cites the BLS definition of a chief executive, which describes the activities of the job, but does not define the purpose of the job of chief executive. The purpose of the school superintendent is to be the head administrative officer of a public school system. The mission is to create a learning environment that provides a quality education to all students, doing so in conjunction with spending public money as legally prescribed. The charge of the CEO of a private business is much different, one centered around profitability – maintaining and expanding the business, increasing profits, attracting investors, etc. School superintendents do nothing of the kind.

Another significant difference lies in impact and accountability. When a CEO’s impact on the business fails to meet expectations, the CEO is usually shown the door. When a school district fails to meet expectations, not only do superintendents almost always escape consequences, he (or she) typically places the blame on the state for not giving districts enough money. And what impact on student achievement does a superintendent really have? According to a 2014 research study from the Brookings Institute, authors report that superintendents have virtually none. Specifically, they state “our results make clear that, in general, school district superintendents have very little influence on student achievement in the districts in which they serve.” They go on to say, “teachers/classrooms, schools/ principals, and districts (have) an impact that is orders of magnitude greater than that associated with superintendents.” (emphasis added)

Given these fundamental differences, putting a superintendent on par with a business CEO is supercilious.

It’s only logical, therefore, that real CEOs are compensated much differently (and usually much more) than school superintendents. According to Tallman’s report “the average Kansas CEO makes about 50% more than the average school superintendent.” The truth is, that percentage would be much higher if total compensation is considered.

One of many examples is how much former Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure was paid.  According to the Kansas City Business Journal, Claure had a base salary of $1.5 million in 2015. However, that pales in comparison to his total compensation of nearly $27 million, which included stock options and “other” payments.  It’s important to note that any compensation outside basic salary is not reported by BLS, so that $25.5 million is not part of BLS stats, and subsequently left out of the Tallman analysis. Numerous other examples abound with the point being: how can superintendents’ pay possibly be compared to real CEOs when private companies have so many more ways to compensate their executives (or all employees, for that matter) than taxpayer-based public schools? But that’s a moot matter because superintendents are not CEOs.

If ever the Mark Twain quote was applicable, this is certainly the case. CEO is definitely “almost” the right word to categorize a superintendent.

Making comparisons is not necessarily a bad thing. Why didn’t Tallman compare Kansas superintendent salaries to something more akin, such as superintendent salaries in neighboring states and of similar size? You know, lightning bug to lightning bug.