School board divided over next super’s salary

Apr. 17, 2014 @ 04:12 PM

When the school board adopted an aggressive timeline for selecting a superintendent last week, the vote was a unanimous one.
But public records from that April 9 meeting show a wide divide over the $225,000 advertised salary the board eventually approved.
The board voted 4-3 to approve the salary after a robust debate that highlighted sharp disagreement over whether the salary should be higher or lower.
School board Chairwoman Heidi Carter and school board members Leigh Bordley, Natalie Beyer and Omega Curtis Parker voted in favor of the $225,000 salary.
School board Vice Chairwoman Minnie Forte-Brown and board members Fredrick Davis and Nancy Cox voted against the $225,000 with Cox favoring a lower amount and Forte-Brown and Davis wanting a higher salary on the table.
The $225,000 approved was considerably less than the $267,000 recommended by Iowa-based Ray & Associates, the consultant hired to conduct the search.
The search firm’s president, Gary Ray, said during the April 9 meeting that a higher advertised amount would help the district attract better candidates.
Ray said that whatever the board did with regards to salary, it would receive criticism from those who either think it’s too high or too low.
“I always tell boards you are better off taking the bullet up front,” Ray said. “Give yourself a chance to get some good candidates before you, then you can decide it they’re worth the money.”
But the $267,000 proved to be a bit too much for most school board members.
“I feel that we are in terribly tight financial times in North Carolina,” Carter said. “Teachers haven’t had a raise. I just don’t think it’s going to look good if we offer $267,000 as our salary.”
Cox shared similar sentiments, passionately arguing that teachers often accept low wages because they have passion for what they do.
“So it’s OK to ask teachers to do this for the love of the children and to be like missionaries and have their heart in it and only get paid $30,000 as starting teachers, but it’s not OK to ask the guy at the top who is going to be making over $200,000 to also care deeply about the children and make some kind of financial sacrifice as a statement for what he’s doing,” Cox said.
She said she would be willing to go as high as $215,000, which would give the board room to negotiate up to $225,000 or down to $195,000 depending on the experience level of the person offered the job.
But Davis and Forte-Brown were adamant that the school district needed to advertise a higher salary if it hopes to attract top-tier candidates.
Davis reminded his colleagues that the board agreed to conduct a national search and that the salary recommendation brought forward by Ray & Associates reflected that.
“These are national figures and if you want national interest, that’s what you got to put up,” Davis said. “You’ve got to put up or shut up.”
Beyer said that Durham doesn’t have as many students as either Charlotte-Mecklenburg or Wake County and therefore cannot justify paying a superintendent the same as the heads of those school districts.
A salary of $267,000 would have placed the next Durham superintendent among the state’s heavyweights.
The superintendent in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district earns $288,000 and the one in Wake County makes $275,000 annually. 
“We can’t justify that to this community,” Beyer said. “And when we talk about a trust issue that we are rebuilding, we’ve got administrators paid too high down here and we got to own that and keep it where it should be.”
Beyer added: “If somebody is coming here for the cha-ching, then they’re the wrong person to begin with.”
Forte-Brown reminded the board that when it started its search for a superintendent in 2009, research showed that it would take $250,000 to bring a top-tier superintendent to Durham.
The board eventually settled on Eric Becoats at a base salary of $190,000 after they negotiated down the advertised salary because he lacked experienced as a superintendent.
Forte-Brown said it will likely take more than $225,000 the board approved to attract candidates who have experience working in an urban school district such as Durham.
She said the district has many social and economic challenges, and needs someone with a demonstrated record of success making improvements in such a district.
“What I asked for in my interview [with the search firm] is for someone to come in here and move the bottom up, and that means I’m looking for someone who can move those students at the bottom up and have demonstrated that,” Forte-Brown said.   
Even at $225,000, the next superintendent would earn more than Durham’s city and county managers.
City Manager Tom Bonfield makes $200,193 and new County Manager Wendell Davis will make $198,000 this year.