Some question contract offer of school chief

Critics say compensation of superintendent is high

`It's just crazy,' Owens says

Top educators command top dollar, others contend

April 28, 2002|By Rona Kobell and Jackie Powder | Rona Kobell and Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

If Eric J. Smith signs a contract worth $300,000 a year to become Anne Arundel County's next school superintendent, the North Carolina educator will earn a paycheck almost double that of County Executive Janet S. Owens.

"It's just crazy," Owens said. "The governor doesn't make that kind of money."

County teachers join in the criticism, saying that they're the ones who should benefit if the school board suddenly feels generous. But others say an investment in the new schools chief is money well spent - and elected officials say it's unlikely they'll try to derail the deal.

"With revenues being down, [Smith's package] seems substantial," said Councilman Dan E. Klosterman Jr., a Millersville Democrat. "But maybe that's what it takes these days."

Even a leader in an anti-tax group argues that top superintendents command top dollar - and are worth it.

"Education is the most necessary tool a civilized government can have, and nowadays it's not coming very cheap," said John R. Greiber Jr., past president and legal counsel for the Anne Arundel Taxpayers Association, a group that criticizes government spending. "If this gentleman can earn his keep, raise test scores and bring quality education to Anne Arundel County, it may well be a bargain."

The Anne Arundel school board has agreed to give Smith, who earns $196,000 a year as superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, a compensation package that includes a $197,000 salary, $19,700 in performance bonuses, a county car and other benefits.

The board paid his predecessor, Carol S. Parham, $152,000 plus benefits. She was so well-loved that the school board named its headquarters after her.

If Smith, 52, accepts, he would be the highest-paid superintendent in the Baltimore area.

Baltimore County pays Joe A. Hairston $180,000. Howard County pays John R. O'Rourke $191,000. Carroll County pays Charles I. Ecker $120,000. Those superintendents don't have performance bonuses, but all receive benefits packages valued between $10,000 and $25,000. Baltimore pays schools Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo $192,000, plus benefits and incentives that bring the total package to $258,000.

Even some who are aware that top talent doesn't come cheaply are critical of the compensation package, especially in a tight budget year.

"While the board is apparently going to be paying top dollar for a superintendent, from our perspective we should also be paying top dollar to recruit the best and brightest in the classroom," said Susie Jablinske, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County. "They're the ones that are closest to the students and are going to make a difference in student achievement."

She said that Smith's compensation package is particularly worrisome, given that Anne Arundel is the third-wealthiest jurisdiction in the state, yet ranks 13th in salaries for starting teachers.

"In informal conversations I've had, teachers are amazed," Jablinske said. "Everybody's just sort of bewildered and befuddled, because we didn't know we had that much money."

Richard I. Kovelant, executive director and general counsel for the Association of Educational Leaders, which represents the county's principals, said the board's offer to Smith "is like buying a Mercedes when you can't put food on the table."

"Year after year, I sit at the negotiating table arguing about a 1 or 2 percent pay raise for people who have been in the system for 20 to 30 years, and every year all I get is how poor they are," Kovelant said. "It's not going to matter what you pay anybody. It's not going to work if you don't have people on the front lines compensated appropriately."

County Council members and the county executive were excluded from the search process, but some reviewed Smith's resume after the announcement.

`World-class' talent

County Councilman John J. Klocko III, a Crofton Republican, said he's impressed with the school board's selection, calling Smith "world-class" and adding that the package seemed fair.

"There's only one person in Anne Arundel County who heads an organization as complex and far-reaching and important as the Board of Education, and that's the superintendent," he said. "I think anyone who manages an organization of several thousand people professionally can be expected to be paid in that range."

In Montgomery County, school board members said the pay package offered to Smith seems to be on target. That county's superintendent, Jerry D. Weast, earns $257,000, plus about $42,000 in benefits.

But Owens, who earns $102,000, said comparisons to Montgomery County, which has 134,000 students compared with Anne Arundel's 75,000, are unfair. And Owens notes that Anne Arundel's system, despite some problems, is "not a troubled urban system" like the one that Russo inherited in Baltimore.

Budget issue

Despite her misgivings about Smith's salary, Owens has praised the North Carolina superintendent's qualifications and said she looks forward to working with him.

"This is more of an issue with the board being absolutely within their prerogative, and in my opinion, out of touch with the constraints of our budget," she said.

Owens and the council can do little about Smith's compensation package. Although the council approves the school board's budget, it does not have veto power over individual line items. And because the board already made Smith an offer, Klosterman said, it's unlikely anyone will protest too loudly at the budget hearings next week.

But Klosterman said he will ask a lot of questions - and will be paying attention to Smith's performance throughout the year.

"I think that superintendent is going to be under the microscope," he said.

Sun staff writer Stephen Kiehl contributed to this article.

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