Supers take home top pay, benefits

COLUMBIA – Public education isn’t the most profitable profession in South Carolina.

For a select few, however, the field can be quite lucrative.

In a state where the governor earns $106,078 a year and agency heads like the state superintendent of education make $92,007, many district level school superintendents rake in two to three times that amount.

That’s the case in Fairfield and Richland counties, where superintendents take home considerably more compensation than state agency heads accountable to 5 million South Carolina residents.

Throw in generous retirement plans, copious car allowances, travel and other high end perks, and total superintendent annual compensation pushes well past $200,000. For Fairfield Superintendent Dr. J. R. Green, with responsibility for eight schools, it’s in the neighborhood of $225,000. For Richland Two Superintendent Dr. Baron Davis, with the responsibility of 32 schools, the pay and benefits bring in about $260,000.

And it’s all subsidized with taxpayer money.

Meantime, teacher pay has continued to lag.

In 2018, Fairfield County School District teachers averaged $49,288 and Richland Two teachers averaged $51,802, South Carolina district report cards state.

Teachers’ salaries in both districts fall well short of the national average of $58,950, according to figures from U.S. Department of Education.

Swelling superintendent pay has become a nationwide trend, with some superintendents being paid close to $400,000, according to a January 2019 report by the American Association of School Administrators, or AASA.

Salary Rises, Attendance Falls

“Often times the superintendent is the highest paid member in the community,” Noelle Ellerson, an associate executive director with AASA, said in a video on the group’s website.

Since 2012, salaries of superintendents in the Midlands have risen considerably faster than student growth.

Green has seen his base salary climb 23 percent since 2012, rising from $140,000 to $182,287, contract documents show. In the same period, the district’s student population has dropped 15 percent, decreasing from 3,108 to 2,641, according to South Carolina school report cards.

Richland Two’s student population has increased since 2012, but at a notably slower rate than superintendent salaries, public records show.

Davis’ starting base pay was $186,312, according to his initial superintendent contract dated July 25, 2016. He now earns $191,904. The pay increase is more than double the Richland Two student enrollment growth of 9.85 percent (25,964 to 28,503) in the same period.

Davis’ contract says as of July 1, 2018, he was entitled to annual salary increases equal to the “average rate of percentage increase” that the district’s certified employees receive.

The board awarded him a 2.5 percent increase in September 2018.

Green is among the highest paid superintendents nationwide for districts of Fairfield’s size, according to the AASA report. His base salary of $182,287 is well above the AASA median of $167,444 for male superintendents in districts with 2,500 to 9,999 students. But Fairfield’s 2,641 student population is near the bottom of that AASA range of student enrollment.

Green’s pay is closer to the 75th percentile of education chiefs who make at least $193,000, according to the AASA report.

Davis’ base salary technically falls below the median for large districts based on AASA findings. However, the AASA classifies any district with more than 25,000 students as large, lumping Richland Two, at 28,503 students, with the nation’s largest districts, many of which have between 100,000 and 1 million students. These upper echelon districts pay between $340,000 and $400,000 a year, according to U.S. Department of Education figures.

According to a March, 2018, report in the New York Daily News, the New York City school district, the nation’s largest, pays its superintendent $353,000, about $100,000 more than Davis is paid. In South Carolina, the state’s largest three districts – Greenville (75,471 students) Charleston (48,937) and Horry (44,669) – are substantially larger than Richland Two and pay their superintendents around $225,000 a year in base pay, according to S.C. Ethics Commission filings.

Defending Supers’ Pay

William Frick, chairman of the Fairfield County school board of trustees, said Green is fairly compensated. He said Green brings a long list of qualifications to Fairfield County.

“[Superintendents] are paid well, but they have a difficult job to do,” Frick said. “They are compensated accordingly.”

Richland Two board chair Amelia McKie couldn’t be reached for comment about Davis’ compensation package. However, in a Sept. 15, 2018 letter summarizing Davis’ performance, McKie spoke very highly of him.

“You have done an excellent job developing the District’s culture and creating the expectation that the District and all of our schools will be ‘premier,’” McKie wrote. “You exhibit excellence at all times, and we would like to see all departments throughout the District reflect your commitment to excellence, professionalism and customer service.”

Evaluating Green

The board voted on Dec. 18 to extend Green’s contract to 2024. Board member Paula Hartman raised concerns about extending it so far into the future.

“I really don’t understand the reasoning – not saying there are any objections – but most districts have three-year contracts,” Hartman said. “I don’t understand why we continue to keep it at six years.”

Frick said prior to hiring Green, the district has had a history of struggling to retain superintendents.

“I’m happy that we have the opportunity to have an amendment to extend it out one more year. I’m glad we can essentially tie him down for another year,” Frick said.

Green said he views the board’s extending of his contract as an affirmation of his performance.

“When the board says it wants to extend my contract, that says you’re interested in having me for the long haul,” Green said.

The superintendent went on to say that a year ago, he put a letter into his file saying that regardless what the board did, his salary should remain the same.

“I felt that I was fairly compensated,” Green said. “I wanted the focus at this point to be on salaries of the staff.”

However, Green’s contract states that he is automatically entitled to salary and benefit increases every time his contract is extended, provided he receives at least a “satisfactory” rating on his performance evaluations.

The superintendent evaluation form the Fairfield board of trustees currently uses, and which contains only five two-word categories to be evaluated, doesn’t feature “satisfactory” as a rating, but instead uses “needs improvement,” “proficient” and “exemplary.”

In December 2018, Fairfield board members rated Green as “exemplary” in almost every category. One board member rated Green as proficient in Leadership and Learning Environment, but exemplary in the others.

“I enjoy working with Dr. Green,” one board member wrote. “We need make it harder [sic], going too good!”

Green’s raises started at 3 percent in 2013, increased to 4 percent in 2014, and rose to 5 percent in 2015, documents show.

Green can now receive an automatic 5 percent pay increase every year forward so long as he receives at least a “satisfactory” rating, according to his contract.

Neither his salary or benefits are tied to student performance, test scores or enrollment.

 R2 Evaluations Mixed

Davis’ second contract, a three-year contract, took effect July 1, 2017 and expires June 30, 2020. In September 2018, after his most recent annual review, Davis’ contract was extended a year to 2021 to keep it at three years. Davis received generally positive reviews during his evaluation.

Collectively, the board gave Davis a score of 142 out of 150 possible points, earning him a “distinguished” rating, the highest rating possible.

Two board members opted to submit individual evaluations.

Board member James Manning gave Davis a perfect score of 150, according to district documents obtained through the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

Board member Lindsay Agostini was more critical.

Her individual evaluation marked Davis down in several areas, characterizing him as defensive, antagonistic and expressing “difficulty recognizing a problem or concern with constructive criticism,” evaluation forms state.

One area of defensiveness Agostini raised involved a disagreement over the elimination of keyboarding as a class.

Agostini also said Davis gave “antagonistic responses” during a bond referendum presentation at an event sponsored by the Bethel-Hanberry Alumni Association.

“The following day, prior to the start of executive session on August 28, 2018, the superintendent acknowledged and apologized to the board for his actions,” the evaluation stated.

 Benefits Boost Pay

Superintendent compensation extends well beyond base salary.

In Fairfield, Green’s original contract called for the district to provide an annual annuity contribution equal to 4 percent of his salary, which in 2012 amounted to $5,600.

In 2014-2015, the board amended Green’s contract to increase the annuity contribution to 8 percent. Now it automatically increases 2 percent every year the contract remains in effect.

Today the district pumps $29,165 per year into Green’s annuity, documents state.

Besides the usual perks of paying for moving expenses, other benefits include $100,000 of term life insurance, free cell phone use and free use of an automobile that’s fully maintained by the district. The invoice for the last full maintenance on his automobile last fall came to $1,800 according to district records.

The district also pays Green’s car insurance, and he receives two weeks of paid vacation on top of legal holidays and other school holidays. The district also paid for his professional memberships into the AASA, the South Carolina Association of School Administrators (SCASA) and other professional groups and local service clubs.

In the event the board terminates the contract, Green is entitled to 18 months pay which would currently come to about $275,000.

R2 Benefits Add Up

In addition to Davis’ base salary of $192,104, the district makes an annual retirement contribution of $43,261 on Davis’ behalf. The district also pitches in $6,717 in annual annuity payments calculated at a rate of 3.5 percent of his annual salary based on a “satisfactory” evaluation, documents state.

Davis essentially doesn’t pay for travel. Richland Two covers $18,000 a year in travel payments for Davis, covering commutes to virtually anywhere in the Midlands, essentially backfilling his take home pay with compensation not available to most other employees.

Davis can also request reimbursement from the district for travel outside the Midlands or out of state if it’s for reasons benefiting the district.

Other perks include $760 in payments for a $250,000 term life insurance policy and $768 for cell phone use, both funded annually by the district.

Counting these benefits, Davis’ total compensation is in excess of $261,000.

Beyond that, Davis receives other perks – 20 vacation days per year, plus legal and other holidays recognized by the district. He’s also entitled to receive pay for unused sick leave, annual leave and vacation days in an amount that’s “consistent with Board policy.”

In addition, the district pays for Davis’ memberships in the AASA, SCASA, the Rotary Club, “and any other reasonable and customary professional group memberships for which the Superintendent believes is necessary to maintain and improve his professional skills.”

Davis’ contract has been amended twice.

In July 2017, his monthly automobile allowance increased by $1,500 a year.

A year later, Davis’ salary increased to its current figure. His annuity contribution also rose from 1.5 percent to 3.5 percent of his annual salary, and this September it will increase again to 6 percent.

Salary, Benefits and Ethics

Documents showing the salaries and compensation of Green and Davis were obtained through S.C. Freedom of Information Act requests.

In requesting the documents, The Voice asked not only for both superintendents’ salaries, but also their contracts, any amendments, and documents listing total compensation, including retirement benefits, vehicle allowances and other supplemental income backfilling personal expenses a typical person would ordinarily incur.

Green’s contract has been amended six times in seven years (since 2012), most recently in December 2018. Dr. Davis’ contract has been amended twice during his nearly three-year tenure.

S.C. superintendent salaries are available for public inspection on the S.C. Ethics Commission’s website.

State law requires superintendents to file annual Statements of Economic Interest, or SEI, forms. The forms are supposed to document the “source, type, and amount or value of income received from a governmental entity by the filer or a member of the filer’s immediate family,” according to the ethics commission website.

Citing state law, an ethics commission spokesperson further defined “income” as “anything of value received, which must be reported on a form used by the Internal Revenue Service for the reporting or disclosure of income received by an individual or a business.

“Income does not, however, include retirement, annuity, pension, IRA, disability, or deferred compensation payments received by the filer or filer’s immediate family member,” the law states.

Some superintendents are thorough in their filings.

Burke Royster, the superintendent of Greenville County Schools, and one of the highest paid education chiefs in the state, reported his $247,000 salary and several benefits on his SEI form.

Other superintendents, however, don’t report their total compensation to the ethics commission.

On his SEI forms, Green only reported his base salary from year to year. He didn’t list any annuity payments, his district-provided automobile or other perks.

Davis listed his travel compensation, but nothing relative to retirement payments.

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