The highest earning school official in the Mohawk Valley raked in nearly $200,000 last year. That’s almost $20,000 more than Gov. Andrew Cuomo grosses. It’s about three times as much as Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri makes.

And just under half of President Barack Obama’s $400,000 base salary.

With school budgets seemingly becoming tighter ever year, the six-figure salaries commanded by many school superintendents have come into question. Some say they’re too high; but local officials say they’re simply commensurate with the responsibilities of running the equivalent of a small corporation.

“A superintendent is just one person on the payroll,” said Tim Hoeffer, executive director of the Empire Center, an independent, Albany-based think tank. “On one hand, a district needs to keep the pay for that position competitive to other districts in order to recruit and retain a good superintendent. On the other hand, they have to be able to explain and justify that cost to their taxpayers.”

Robert Nole — superintendent of the New Hartford Central School District since 2008 and chief of more than 2,500 students and 400 employees — topped the local list of highest paid school officials for the 2013-14 school year, with a salary of $192,610, according to other district officials.

Close behind him were Whitesboro Superintendent David Langone at $188,585 and Holland Patent’s Kathleen Davis at $185,512.

Nole was out of the office last week and could not be reached for comment, but other local superintendents shared their thoughts on what they do, and why they deserve what they make.

The job of a superintendent

Kathy Houghton, superintendent for the New York Mills Union Free School District, referred to the job of a superintendent as the “CEO of a multi-million-dollar operation.”

Last year she made $139,134 and was responsible for a $13 million budget.

“We are in charge of a crucial public service — the education of our children,” said Houghton, who has been superintendent for the district since 2008. “We are facilitators of learning; advocates of the school district; strategic planners for the fiscal and instructional future of our districts; managers of multiple resources; supporters and cheerleaders of the principals, teachers, staff and school support groups; and advisors to the Board of Education.”

They’re also on the clock 24-7, area superintendents say.

“The biggest factors include the volume, importance and frequency of decisions and related responsibilities that are in the hands of superintendents on a daily basis,” said Ronald Spadafora, superintendent of Oneida schools. “In reality, we are on duty 24 hours a day.”

A superintendent’s salary is just one piece of the puzzle that is each district’s budget.

On average, their salaries makes up about 0.5 percent of the entire fiscal plan, said Robert Lowry, deputy director for advocacy research and communications with the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

Nole’s $192,610 earnings, for example, while the highest in the area, was just 0.4 percent of New Hartford’s $47.7 million budget in 2013-14.

Jeffrey Bryant, who retired as the Camden superintendent earlier this year, earned $144,000 during the 2013-14 school year. That’s just 0.28 percent of the $50 million budget.

And Dolgeville’s superintendent, Christine Reynolds, brought in $125,000 last year, 0.65 percent of the school’s $19 million budget.

Superintendents’ salaries also aren’t growing as quickly as they once were. In 2011, Lowry said, two-thirds of superintendents his agency polled reported taking a pay freeze or agreeing to somehow cut their compensation in order to aid their district’s budget.

“Superintendents are agreeing to smaller raises than were commonplace five to 10 years ago,” Lowry said. “We went through a very difficult financial period and they set an example as leaders.”

The taxpayer burden

Not everyone thinks the salaries are justified, however.

Jason Tallman has lived in New Hartford since third grade and has paid taxes as a homeowner for eight years. He’s watched as the district has cycled through superintendents.

“People in my town give way too much credit to the superintendent,” he said. “Kids in New Hartford do well because they have parents at home pushing them. Many of my friends are teachers and they are all hardworking.”

Tallman said he worked for the New Hartford district for about 10 years and he feels previous superintendents who were paid less than Nole managed to perform just as well.

“If you were to move Mr. Nole from New Hartford to Utica, or any other underperforming district, could he replicate New Hartford’s success?” he asked. “If he could, then he is worth every penny he is making.”

In 2011, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a tax cap that would have set the maximum pay for school officials in a district with more than 6,500 students at $175,000. The proposal was unsuccessful, however, despite estimates that it would save taxpayers $15 million.

The only local district that would have been eligible for the maximum salary under that plan is Utica, with an enrollment of more than 10,000 students. Utica’s superintendent Bruce Karam earned $168,000 last year – coming in under Cuomo’s proposed cap.

A few years ago, the state Council of School Superintendents polled a group of superintendents at a conference.

“We asked them, ‘What do you want the public to know about your work as a superintendent?’” Lowry said. “One of those responses stuck with me.”

One superintendent told him he wished the public knew that every morning when he wakes up, his first thought is: “How can I keep everyone safe today?”

“Superintendents carry their jobs with a lot of personal responsibility as the leader of the school system,” Lowry said. “If anything goes wrong, if anything terrible happens, they’re the go-to person.”

But a superintendent’s reach also extends beyond the four walls of their schools, Lowry said.

They are also “cornerstones of communities:” educating children, shaping future leaders and even affecting property values as many families look at the quality of local schools when buying homes.

© 2015 Utica Observer-Dispatch

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