Sacramento school superintendent salaries have exploded in recent years, growing to challenge the paychecks of university presidents.
Locally, superintendent salaries range from $240,000 for Sarah Koligian in the Folsom Cordova Unified School District, which has 20,353 students, to $330,951 for Christopher Hoffman, who leads the region’s largest school district, Elk Grove Unified, with 63,297 students, according to 2017-18 state enrollment figures.
Hoffman’s pay is more than the salary of President Robert Nelsen of Sacramento State, who is paid $324,029. The California State University campus serves 29,000 students.
“The public today is being convinced by board members and the private sector that these organizations are very large enterprises and that the people who head them should be compensated like the CEOs of a corporation,” said James Finkelstein, a professor emeritus in the policy and government school at George Mason University.
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Of the Sacramento County school districts that have given substantial raises to their leaders over the last 10 years, Natomas Unified is the most generous by far. Its school board has increased Superintendent Chris Evans’ salary by $117,604 since he was hired in 2012. Since then, his pay has risen from $176,000 to $293,604 — a 67 percent increase.
Evans, who runs the smallest of the six districts, with 14,895 students, also earned a 6 percent bonus, or $17,580, in 2017, bringing his pay this school year to $311,184. He also is eligible for extra pay if he works more than his contracted 220 days.
His perks include $12,000 a year toward an annuity, a $500-a-month car allowance and a $1,500 yearly technology stipend, along with the usual health benefits.
Board President Scott Dosick defended the superintendent’s salary package. “It is a very competitive marketplace for good superintendents, and Chris has done a fantastic job for our district,” he said.
He said Evans has helped the district, once facing a state financial bailout, to balance its budget each of the last six years. The district also has seen dramatic decreases in its drop-out rate and increases in its graduation rate and the number of students eligible to attend college since Evans became superintendent, Dosick said.
He said the bonus was given in recognition of a year of good performance. “It was an extremely challenging year, where he rose to those challenges,” he said.
The board had already given Evans a $46,130 boost to his base salary in 2016, which increased his pay more than 20 percent. Before giving the raise, the board compared superintendent salaries regionally and in districts of comparable size statewide, Dosick said.
“Any time we are considering an increase, from superintendent to all of our staff, we are going to the 50th to 75th percentile for comparable districts to ensure we are attracting the best and the brightest, because our kids deserve no less,” he said.
Finkelstein said superintendents use comparisons with other districts to get bigger paychecks. “They are watching what their peers are making,” he said. “Salaries are reported publicly all the time. They are saying, ‘The person down the street is getting a $20,000 raise. I need a $20,000 raise.’ ”
He said there is no evidence to support the idea that school districts that offer higher pay get better results academically or otherwise.
Teachers in the Sacramento region have also seen boosts to their salaries in recent years, although the raises have been significantly less than those of superintendents. Teachers' salaries have grown from 9.5 percent to 16 percent in the last five years, depending on the district, on top of regular step increases.
The California Department of Education put the average superintendent salary for a high school district at $226,121 in 20015-16, the most recent data available. Elementary school superintendents averaged $212,818 annually.
Twin Rivers Unified also offers a big salary and perks to its superintendent, Steve Martinez, who earns $308,112 to lead the district of about 40,000 students. His raises, including a $25,000 hike in 2014 and a $20,000 hike in 2015, have increased his initial $215,000 salary in 2013 by 43 percent. Martinez also has had his district-funded retirement contribution boosted from $5,000 when he started to $12,500 this year.
Kent Kern began his job as superintendent of San Juan Unified in 2014 with a salary of $238,500. He now makes $295,929, a 24 percent increase.
There have been no pay raises for superintendents Jorge Aguilar in Sacramento City Unified, $295,000, and Koligian in Folsom Cordova, $240,000, who are in their first year with their respective districts.
Hoffman made $270,000 when he started at Elk Grove Unified in September 2014. He also had an $800 monthly stipend for business and travel expenses. Now he makes $330,951, a 22.57 percent increase. Next year that is set to go up to $342,232.
Hoffman, Martinez and Kern all have provisions in their contracts allowing them to hold outside jobs, which generally include consulting, giving speeches or writing. Most districts require that these jobs don't conflict with superintendent duties.
Finkelstein said things like Outside Professional Activities clauses, annuities and bonuses didn't exist in the contracts of university presidents 15 years ago. Now they are finding their way into school district superintendent contracts.
He questions whether superintendents with big salaries really need to moonlight.
"A superintendent’s job, in many ways, is a much more demanding job than a university president," Finkelstein said. "It’s an awesomely huge responsibility. You would think (a district) would want a superintendent who is fully committed and fully devoted."