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They command six-figure salaries, often with annual bonuses and car allowances. (Generous health-care and pension plans are a given.) Sometimes their employers also foot the bill for their life-insurance policies.

There are very few of them, for their skill set is rare. They must be savvy politicians and managers. They must be obsessed with constant improvement.

They’ll be under the bright lights of the media, so the camera-shy need not apply.

No, we’re not talking rock stars, pro athletes or even pro coaches.

We’re talking school superintendents. Especially those of large urban districts that have struggled from time immemorial.  The original rock-star superintendent was Rudy Crew, who asked for—and got—a contract from the Miami-Dade school system in 2004 that paid him upwards of $500,000 a year. He defended his salary by saying, “I think people are really hungry for leadership. We shouldn’t underestimate the value of this kind of leadership. This is public servancy with highly developed skills.”

school district leadership

The 2010-11 school year is witnessing a larger-than-usual upheaval among the ranks of urban superintendents: Ramon Cortines is retiring in Los Angeles next month, Joel Klein quit mid-year in New York City, Michelle Rhee was done after Adrian Fenty’s failed re-election bid in the nation’s capital last fall, Clifford Janey is out in Newark after his contract wasn’t renewed, Ron Huberman stepped down in Chicago last November, Beverly Hall is leaving amidst a cheating scandal in Atlanta, Paul Vallas is moving on from the Big Easy and Jerry Weast is throwing in the towel in Montgomery County, Md.

And add Seattle to the list, as Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson was fired last night after a state audit found financial mismanagement to the tune of $1.8 million.

Klein, Hall and Weast have all served eight or more years in their most recent posts, which is much longer than the three-year stay of the average urban superintendent. The trouble with filling such vacancies is that the pool from which candidates are drawn isn’t deep; everyone’s after the same few fish. The predictable result in a free-market economy is that districts must offer lavish compensation packages to woo, and then retain, their preferred leaders.

In the case of Arlene Ackerman, who has run the School District of Philadelphia since June 2008, that has meant offering her not just a base salary of $348,140 but also an annual performance bonus of up to 20 percent her base salary and, this year, a retention bonus of $100,000. According to the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, “The bonuses are in addition to annual raises, [Ackerman’s] health plan, and a $65,000-a-year contribution to an annuity. Add to that 34 vacation days, 30 days of paid consulting time (which come out of her vacation or personal days), and perks like a car and premiums toward a $1 million life insurance policy.”

Such eye-popping compensation—which more than one observer has noted exceeds the combined compensation of Philadelphia’s mayor and Pennsylvania’s governor—worries some people, especially in the current fiscal crisis. Among those concerned are Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, both of whom have recently pushed for upper limits to superintendent salaries. They argue that, with few exceptions, superintendents shouldn’t earn more than $175,000 a year.

But when compared to the salaries of top players in other fields—from Wall Street to higher education—most superintendents’ salaries look, if anything, rather small. Consider, for example, the case of Cathie Black, newly appointed Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools.

Black earns $250,000 a year to run an institution with a $21-billion annual budget that serves 1.1 million students. That’s exactly what Matthew Goldstein, chancellor of the City University of New York, earned a dozen years ago when he assumed his current position. Goldstein’s salary has now almost doubled to $490,000, which doesn’t include a yearly housing allowance of $90,000. But Goldstein’s system—in terms of annual budget and number of students served—is just one-fourth the size of Black’s. And the stakes are arguably lower at the university than the K-12 level.

It’s little wonder that someone like Geoffrey Canada, the revered leader of the Harlem Children’s Zone, is said to have turned down Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s request that he run the New York City Public Schools. The task is daunting, the compensation modest and the likelihood of unqualified success slim. Taking the job of chancellor would have meant a major pay-cut for Canada—in 2008, he earned $494,269 as president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone—and his reputation might well have suffered if the city’s schools didn’t show significant improvement on his watch.

school district leadership

The superintendent role is tricky because it generally requires expertise in three distinct arenas: 1) politics; 2) management; and 3) education. Those tapped to lead school districts from other fields—business, politics, media, the law and the military are popular—often have little difficulty with the first two of these. But when they’re new to the field of education, teachers tend to perceive them as outsiders whose lack of pedagogical knowledge is disturbing, if not downright dangerous. Hence the decision, in New York City and elsewhere, to appoint someone with classroom and curricular expertise to a “Chief Academic Officer” (CAO) post to serve alongside the superintendent or chancellor. In New York City, that person is Shael Polakow-Suransky, a former city math teacher who worked his way up to deputy chancellor of performance and accountability before becoming CAO.

Just how long Cathie Black lasts as New York City Schools Chancellor is anybody’s guess. She’s indicated an intention to stay through Mayor Bloomberg’s third term, which ends in 2013. But at least one pundit, Michael Petrilli of the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., thinks Black will be out by Easter.

If she is, New York City will rejoin the long list of major school systems now searching for the next rock star.

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