City's debt-ridden schools pay 36 staff $100,000 or more

Majority at headquarters

CEO gets $192,000 a year, her driver $101,000 in 2002

February 13, 2003|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

While Baltimore school officials have laid off workers and borrowed money to help reduce a multimillion-dollar deficit, three-dozen school employees are earning more than $100,000, and the chief executive officer has twice received a performance bonus.

The number of city school workers who earned six-figure paychecks last year, including Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo's driver, exceeded the number at Baltimore County public schools or City Hall.

While six principals are among the highest-paid administrators, the majority work at the central office on North Avenue.

Seven of those administrators make more than Mayor Martin O'Malley, according to statistics supplied by the school system. O'Malley is paid $125,000.

Two school board members defended the salaries, particularly for principals, saying that the district needs to offer more than surrounding counties to entice people to work in the more challenging environment of the city schools. No principal in Baltimore County makes $100,000.

"We can't even begin to recruit the kind of persons we want unless we make the offers higher," said school board President Patricia L. Welch.

She and board member C. William Struever said they would like to increase the pay for principals.

"Operating a system that is as costly as ours requires a certain level of expertise," Welch said. "Education is really expensive."

The six-figure payroll group in the city school system, 36, tops City Hall, where 33 people make $100,000 or more, and Baltimore County schools - a district with 15,000 more children and thousands more employees than the city - with 22 people in that pay range.

City school board members set the salaries for the three highest administrators.

Below that level, the board approves the hiring of administrators in a salary range but does not decide the exact amounts. Those salaries are set by the chief executive officer.

Russo earns $192,000 a year, less than superintendents in Montgomery, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, but about the average for school superintendents in districts with up to 200,000 children, according to a 2001 survey by the Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of the country's 60 largest public school districts.

The Baltimore system has about 96,000 students.

Russo was also paid a $20,000 bonus by the school board in June and a $15,000 bonus after her first year.

A clause in her contract says the board can reward her for good performance.

She does have perks that some counterparts do not. Among those are a full-time driver, a school police officer who earned $101,000 last year, including $48,300 in overtime.

Russo has five assistants: a chief of staff who earns $102,000, a special assistant who makes $91,000, an executive assistant who earns $88,800 and two executive secretaries making $46,600.

She said she eliminated two lower-paid secretarial positions from the staff when she came to Baltimore in 2000, which resulted in a savings that paid for half of her executive assistant's salary.

Salary increases

Several of those salaries have increased substantially since Russo was hired two years ago.

For instance, the chief of staff received a $20,000 increase last year when the system was running up a $9 million deficit. The special assistant received an $18,000 increase in two years.

"These are the men and women who grind it out and sit here until 8 and 10 o'clock at night," Russo said, defending the pay of her assistants.

She said that at least the past three chief executive officers before her employed the same police officer as a driver. The driver picks her up at her home in the morning, Russo said, and drops her off at night, but he is not on call on days that she does not work.

Russo said she reads reports and makes phone calls in the car.

"It is one of the ways you make your CEO as efficient as possible," she said.

Officials at the wheel

State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has no driver, nor does Baltimore County Superintendent Joe Hairston.

Grasmick said she logs as many as 700 miles a week, mostly driving herself around the state. She said that occasionally an employee drives when she travels long distances late at night.

Hairston has the use of a county car but drives himself to schools. He uses a driver only when traveling to Annapolis or Washington.

A security officer was detailed to Iris T. Metts, Prince George's County school chief, after a threat was made on her life. The officer drives her to appointments, said Prince George's school officials.

Welch justified the practice of a driver for Russo on the basis of safety but also said the board might look more closely at the overtime costs.

"Given the budget constraints, one wonders whether that does not need to be revisited," Welch said. But, she added, "he is a trained officer. The base salary is not an issue for me at all."

Russo's executive assistant, who came to Baltimore from Florida with Russo and earns $88,800, makes more than some principals in the system.

Grasmick also has an executive assistant, who does a similar job. Her pay: $52,000.

Staying on track

The city schools chief said it is necessary to have someone who schedules her appointments and keeps her on track.

"When the board asked me how many people I wanted to bring with me, I said, `One,'" Russo said. "They said most bring five or six. I said, `I know. ... I want to bring one."

Along with Russo, the district's top wage earners are chief academic officer Cassandra Jones, who makes $145,230; Joseph Kirkman, chief technology officer, who earns $140,080; and Mark Smolarz, chief operating officer, who earns $142,140.

Three of the district's six-figure administrators have been hired in the past year, filling newly created positions.

Struever said the system has a goal of reducing the administrative staff at the North Avenue school headquarters with a goal of eliminating 75 positions next year.

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