2022 has been a year of long-overdue school board accountability. Boards could no longer use COVID as an excuse to slam the schoolhouse door in parents’ faces, and shocking videos laid bare the obscene content these boards were placing in the hands of America’s children. A round of scandalously low test scores turned up the heat on groups that, for too long, had been content to operate quietly.
This was a reckoning, but it only ever touched on half the problem of local school governance. Superintendents, some of the most powerful education bureaucrats, skated by unscathed.
Superintendents have an important role to play: They oversee the daily operations and future planning for their school districts. These officials are generally either elected by the voters or appointed by school boards. In private-sector terms, the school board is the Board of Directors and the superintendent is the CEO.
Superintendents have long enjoyed cushy jobs with little public oversight. Back in 2010, four Atlanta-area superintendents made headlines for being paid more than the Vice President of the United States. In 2014, a Los Angeles-area school district board cut its superintendent’s pay after it came to light that he made $663,000 the previous year. Earlier this year, the Arizona Auditor General found that the Buckeye Elementary School District allegedly overpaid its superintendent by more than half a million dollars over a period of six years.
With little oversight, superintendent positions are ripe for abuse of public funds. But even in cases where funding is not misused, high pay for these officials is not the outlier; it’s the rule. The average superintendent in the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 78 of the nation’s largest public school districts, was making a salary of $242,000 in 2014. Recent data on superintendent salaries are scarce, but in 2019, 100 Texas superintendents made more than a quarter million dollars per year. This doesn’t make them inherently bad, but it makes them expensive public servants whose job performance must not be ignored.
Overall high pay for superintendents could be tolerated if they were pulling students’ academic achievement out of the pits. But none of these districts are known for stellar performance. In fact, they’re known for the exact opposite. In the private sector, anyone paid this much would be expected to deliver quantifiable positive results. In the public bureaucracy, incompetence is rewarded, if it is discovered at all.
Most superintendents in large districts don’t stick around long enough to really see the results of their efforts show up in student achievement data. In 2021 and 2022, on average, more than 25% of the nation’s largest school districts hired a new superintendent each year, according to Education Resource Strategies. From 2016 through 2020, the average turnover rate in the 100 largest districts was just shy of 20%.
Unlike school boards, which have regular and public meetings, superintendents are generally shielded from being questioned or criticized in a public forum. Most parents probably don’t know the name of their school superintendent. These officials have a level of importance that far outweighs their accountability.
Superintendents have a great deal of say over how COVID money is used, or, in many cases, not used. Most of the $189.5 billion allocated by Congress for K-12 COVID relief still remains unspent. Superintendents sat on the money rather than use every available resource to reopen schools safely and make up for the lost instructional time. These officials also have a say in school policies, and too many have permitted wokeness to override sanity, allowing biological boys in girls’ sports and enabling tax dollars to be used on pornographic library books aimed at children.
At a time when both sides of the political aisle are concerned with teacher accountability and compensation, the same debate must be had about superintendents. How many of them are truly worth what they cost taxpayers? Before we find out, smart school boards will move to right-size superintendent paychecks and introduce transparency and accountability that these bureaucrats have evaded up to this point.