salary disparity

A possible hurdle as New York City searches for a new schools chief: low pay

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

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.

NEW MOMENT

Tennessee’s struggling state-run district just hired the ‘LeBron James’ of school turnaround work

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Sharon Griffin was the first chief of schools for Shelby County Schools. Starting in May, she will be the next leader of Tennessee's state-run district.

In hiring a Memphis native to save its most vulnerable schools, Tennessee is hedging its bets that she can finally get the job done.

Sharon Griffin’s new job is to fix the state’s struggling Achievement School District and use her experience to strengthen the relationships with local districts across the state.

But can she right the ship and make everyone happy?

“I know through my experience and the relationships I’ve built that we cannot only focus and prioritize our work, but strengthen the relationship [between local districts and the state] so all of our schools can be great places of learning,” Griffin said during a conference call this week.

Tennessee’s achievement district started out as the cornerstone of the state’s strategy to improve low performing schools in 2012. It promised to vault the state’s 5 percent of lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years. But the district hasn’t produced large academic gains. It’s struggling to attract students and retain high-quality teachers. And local districts don’t like it because the state moved in and took over schools without input.

But as Tennessee works to make its state the national model of school achievement, naming a revered, longtime home-grown leader as point person for school turnaround is seen by many as a jolt of badly needed energy, and a savvy move in a state education system divided into many factions.

“I think it is a game-changer,” said Rep. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, who has championed legislation to refine the achievement district. “The ASD badly needs a strong leader…. She definitely could be the bridge to bring us over troubled water in Tennessee.”


Read more about what Griffin’s hire means for the school district she is leaving behind. 


Education Commissioner Candice McQueen stressed during the call that Griffin’s appointment does not mean state-run schools will return to local control, even as she acknowledged that the district is at a turning point. It’s now the state’s tool of last resort.

“Whether that is transitioning a school back into the district when it is ready or whether it’s to intervene and move a school into the Achievement School District,” McQueen said. “This particular moment is about a person who can lead all of the state interventions as well as the specificity of the ASD.”

For Bobby White, the founder and CEO of a Memphis charter organization in the achievement district, the appointment signals a new chapter ahead. Griffin will directly oversee the district’s 30 charter schools in her new role.

He has been around for the highs and lows of Tennessee’s six-year experiment in state-run turnaround work.

“It feels like we got LeBron James, you know?” said White, who runs Frayser Community Schools. “It feels like she will have a vision and take us where we have been needing to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Frayser Community Schools CEO Bobby White has seen the highs and lows of the turnaround district.

Part of that vision will be finding new ways for charter schools and local districts to work together. In her roles as assistant commissioner of School Turnaround and chief of the Achievement School District, Griffin will oversee more than just the state-run district. She will have a hand in turnaround efforts across the state, such as a new partnership zone in Chattanooga. In the partnership zone, state and local leaders will work together to create mini-districts that are freed from many local rules.

Griffin stressed earlier this week that building relationships and fostering collaboration are among her top strengths — efforts that the state has failed in as local districts have sparred with state-runs schools over enrollment, facilities, and sharing student contact information.

“We have a level playing field now,” Griffin said. “I want to be clear, it’s not us against them. It’s a chance to learn not only from what ASD has been able to do alongside charter schools, but a chance to learn from each other as we move forward.”

Marcus Robinson, a former Indianapolis charter leader, said Griffin’s dynamic personality will be enough to get the job done.

“Dr. Griffin is magnetic,” said Robinson, who has helped raise money for Memphis schools through the Memphis Education Fund.

“She is the type of person who disarms people because she’s so authentic and genuine,” he said. “But she’s also experienced and wise and she knows school turnaround work.”

Griffin leaves behind a 25-year award-winning career with Shelby County Schools, the local district in Memphis. She has been a teacher and principal. She spearheaded the district’s turnaround work, and now serves as chief of schools. She will start her new role in May and will stay based in Memphis — something community members have long asked for.

Student at Frayser Achievement Academy.
PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, a state-run school.

Steve Lockwood has watched the state’s reform play out in his Memphis neighborhood of Frayser, whose schools were home to some of the first state takeovers.

When the state first started running schools in Frayser, it was with the promise that the academics and culture would improve, said Lockwood, who runs the Frayser Community Development Corporation.

“The ASD has struggled to deliver on their mission,” Lockwood said. “But the last few months have been modestly encouraging. The ASD has seemed willing to admit mistakes and shortcomings.”

Lockwood said he sees Griffin’s appointment as a commitment by the state to bettering relationships in Memphis — and added that he was surprised she signed up.

“It’s a tribute to the ASD that they have enough juice left to attract someone like Dr. Griffin,” Lockwood said.

Senior reporter Marta Aldrich contributed to this report.

unforced error

Mayor de Blasio says education department has culture of frivolous harassment complaints

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

A “hyper-complaint dynamic” within the city’s education department explains why so few of the harassment claims made against the agency are substantiated, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday.

“It’s pretty well known inside the education world of some people bringing complaints of one type or another for reasons that may not have to do with the specific issue — and this is not just about sexual harassment,” de Blasio said at a press conference.

“We have to investigate everything but it is a known fact that unfortunately there has been a bit of a hyper-complaint dynamic sometimes for the wrong reasons.”

The mayor’s comments come less than a week after the city released statistics that show nearly 500 education department employees filed sexual harassment complaints over the past four years — but just seven of the complaints were substantiated, according to the New York Times. That means only 2 percent of complaints were found to have merit — compared with nearly 17 percent at other agencies citywide.

During a question and answer session with reporters, de Blasio repeatedly said the education department has a cultural problem when it comes to reporting misconduct.

“I can’t parse out for you who was sincere and who was insincere and what type of offense,” de Blasio said. “I can’t get there. I can tell you the fact it’s unfortunately a part of the culture of an agency that is changing that we need to address.”

De Blasio quickly tried to walk back some of his comments on Twitter.

The mayor’s comments come as activists worldwide have raised awareness about sexual harassment, sparking the #MeToo movement. One element of that conversation has been the  importance of taking harassment claims seriously instead of dismissing them. More than three-quarters of the city’s teachers are women, according to the Independent Budget Office.

De Blasio’s responses drew sharp criticism from Michael Mulgrew, president of the city’s teachers union. “Our teachers have a tough enough job that they don’t have time to make frivolous claims,” he said in a statement.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who was accused of gender discrimination when he was a top school district official in San Francisco, said the education department has increased the number of investigators who look into such complaints.