As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tries to lure top talent from across the country to replace his retiring schools chief, one factor could complicate the search: The nation’s largest school system doesn’t pay its leader very well, at least compared to her peers.
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña is earning roughly $235,000 this year, considerably less than the heads of many other large urban school systems. In Los Angeles — which is also conducting a search for a new leader — outgoing Superintendent Michelle King brings home $350,000. Philadelphia’s superintendent makes over $311,000.
In fact, the head of New York City’s 1.1-million-student school system draws a base salary that is below the average for districts with as few as 50,000 students, according to a 2014 survey conducted by the Council of Great City Schools. Among larger systems with 200,000 or more students, districts paid their chiefs an average of $281,000 — or $46,000 more than New York City’s currently does. (Suburban school chiefs often make more to run much smaller districts; on Long Island, for instance, dozens of superintendents posted higher salaries than Fariña.)
Fariña’s total compensation is much higher because she is also collecting a $210,000 pension from her decades-long career in the city school system before de Blasio plucked her out of retirement. But an outsider would presumably not have a similar salary sweetener.
Of course, pay may be lower on some candidates’ list of considerations than the chance to steer the nation’s most high-profile school system, not to mention the prestige and resume boost that comes with that national spotlight. Still, the relatively low salary could make it more difficult to convince seasoned leaders of higher-paying districts to accept the unusually demanding position, experts say, even if the job leads to higher-paying positions down the road.
“You have to make sure that the salary is at least up there high enough that you can get good, experienced leaders,” said Ryan Ray, whose leadership recruitment firm, Ray and Associates, conducts about 50 superintendent searches a year. “I’m not going to say salary is the only factor, but it’s definitely a factor.”
While chancellor candidates may take a range of considerations into account when considering the job (including the cost of living in New York City), at least one past candidate turned down an offer primarily because of the pay four years ago, according to a former education official who was briefed on the search.
“The biggest problem they have in terms of the attractiveness of the job is the salary,” the official said.
So why don’t city officials just make the salary more competitive — barely a drop in the bucket of the education department’s $24 billion operating budget?
In theory, there’s no reason why they couldn’t. In practice, however, the city is typically reluctant to pay agency heads more than the mayor, experts and observers said. After taking a raise this year, de Blasio earns nearly $259,000, leaving relatively little wiggle room to make the chancellor’s salary more competitive.
“It’s not only a norm of city government, it’s almost like a social norm: The boss makes the most money,” said David Bloomfield a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, noting that the salary could nudge the search toward internal candidates who would almost certainly earn a raise. “It’s a potentially limiting factor.”
Bloomfield added that districts governed by school boards may see less reason to peg superintendent salaries to other top city employees, since they are generally independent. The New York City schools chancellor, by contrast, is supervised by the the mayor, who may be reluctant to pay someone more than he makes, or face criticism stemming from paying a much higher salary (though if this shocking Louisiana school board meeting is any indication, school boards also face pushback on superintendent compensation).
For their part, city officials waved off concerns that the chancellor’s salary would have an effect on the search process. “Our application pool has always been competitive and salary isn’t a hinderance at all,” a mayoral spokeswoman, Olivia Lapeyrolerie, wrote in an email.
But asked whether the city would consider offering a salary higher than the mayor’s to make it more competitive, Lapeyrolerie had no comment.