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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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They Walk Among Us

In some ways, I go further than Governor Cuomo regarding potential school superintendent savings. Some districts can share administrators, and not all districts require national searches for prestige appointees. We can have a reasonable discussion about limiting the pensionable portion of higher public salaries. But lines have been crossed in this latest near– hysterical, over-the-top campaign against the honesty and integrity of public school administrators. When we are commanded by powerful political and media forces to feel angry like this, it’s a red flag that we’re not getting the whole story.

You have probably been exposed to the slick mailings and other advertising from the Governor’s close allies strongly implying that school administrators work behind closed doors to steal money from children. “Reduce the waste. Reduce the fraud.… I know there is waste and abuse in school districts,” the Governor told reporters in a four–minute screed at an Albany press conference last week. His new demand, echoed by elements of the media, is that the salaries of school superintendents be rolled back to $125,000 to $175,000, based on enrollment. People with doctorate degrees who manage $100 million operations and hundreds of employees don’t need me to justify their salaries. Let’s just introduce a bit of perspective. Let’s have one standard and a policy grounded in reality.

Long Island districts that want a wide selection pool for top administrators have been handicapped for a long time. Two decades ago, I learned that a local board had hired a top superintendent from a Midwestern state, only to have the appointee withdraw before the public announcement because he’d come to understand the high cost of moving his family to Nassau County. At that time, the Island’s highest superintendent pay was $133,000 (yes, higher than that of the governor). A prestigious district hired a new superintendent at $117,500. Adjusted for official inflation, that’s $185,344 in current dollars, $20,000 above the $165,000 salary cap our governor would impose on that district today, based on enrollment.

By 2000, there was a national shortage of superintendent candidates in many parts of the country, which is why salaries in expensive suburbs throughout the Northeast began rising over $200,000. This was neither an accident nor a conspiracy.

It’s not consistent to claim on one hand that high costs entitle Long Islanders to special considerations in aid and tax policies, but also insist that our school superintendents should be paid no more than their counterparts in rural Central New York, where $100,000 buys a whole lot of house. Are some individual administrators paid too much? Could be, but Boards of Education exist to determine that. There is no tenure for superintendents. The people who feel so strongly about “local control” when we talk about merging garbage districts or water districts should be at the barricades over this.

There are strikingly similar campaigns against school administrators in other states, including New Jersey (labeled as Governor Christie’s “War on Superintendents” by the Wall Street Journal) and Pennsylvania. Same language, same phrases, even the same maximum $175,000 cap. Suddenly, out of the blue, no one should earn more than the Governor. Some people are already saying that teacher salaries should be capped at half that of the superintendent, or less.

The total cost across New York of the superintendent salaries above this proposed cap is all of $15 million, which is actually less than Governor Cuomo raised in the last state campaign cycle just in contributions of $10,000 or more. He had 990 of them, including eight from Cablevision, which owns Newsday, totaling $205,000. The advertising blitz, funded by an opaque front group, continues. There are agendas within agendas here. Agendas against wage earners, and against any type of progressive tax reform no matter how limited or fair.

If highly educated professionals with local standing can be taken out, the test will be successful and the target zone expanded.

School board trustees know how quickly walls are closing in and how badly they need to find dollars. Albany politicians send platitudes about doing more with less. Tough talk. No new ideas. Positioning, but not leadership.

 

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net