Money for Nothing – Public Administrators Have Minimal Authority or Accountability

Edward Ring

Director, Water and Energy Policy

Edward Ring
January 13, 2015

Money for Nothing – Public Administrators Have Minimal Authority or Accountability

On January 14th the Orange County Board of Education will meet to consider, among other things, approving a 2% increase for the Orange County superintendent’s salary. Using data provided by the Orange County Dept. of Education to Transparent California, it can be seen that in 2013 the superintendent, Al Mijares, earned a base salary of $293,500, along with additional employer paid “benefits” of $50,482, for a total of $338,482.

To evaluate whether or not this level of compensation is appropriate, the first step is to evaluate how much superintendents make in other California school districts. Using data provided by the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Dept of Education, and California Department of Education, and compiled by, we downloaded enrollment and academic performance information for 786 California school districts. We then eliminated from consideration all school districts with less than 10,000 students enrolled, and sorted the remaining 164 school districts by their academic performance, based on test scores for Math and English (download spreadsheet). How much did the superintendents make in these districts?

Using Transparent California, we were able to acquire compensation data for 20 of the top 22 districts, ensuring a reasonably representative average for how well the very best school districts pay their superintendents. To avoid skewing the results, in each district we counted the highest paid official, which in nearly all cases was the superintendent, but in one case was the business manager, and in another the chief counsel. But the superintendent’s salary was always nearly the same. The average total compensation for the most highly compensated individuals in the very best school districts in California during 2013 was $269,210. This means that during 2013, Al Mijares was already making 25% more than the average amount paid to the highest paid officials working in the highest performing school districts in California.

None of this matters, however, for two reasons. First, making comparisons constitutes a circular argument used for decades by government unions to negotiate an endless cycle of increases to their pay. As soon as one city raised pay and benefits, every other city had to follow suit. And of course, given the control government unions have over most local governments and school boards, pay cuts were never contagious, only pay increases. Second, the data indicates there is little correlation between superintendent pay and school district performance.

Our analysis of the twenty worst performing school districts – for which data was provided, since five of the bottom 25 did not provide compensation data – showed the highest paid officials in those districts earned average total compensation of $254,219 during 2013. That is, among school districts with over 10,000 students, the difference separating California’s best performing school districts from California’s worst, in terms of compensation to the person supposedly running them, was 5.8%. There is virtually no correlation between pay and performance among the executives responsible for the education of California’s K-12 students.

This should come as no surprise. In reality, paying someone a pay and benefits package worth $250,000, or $350,000, or more, to run an organization with over 1,000 employees – which is almost certainly the case in a school district with over 10,000 students – is not extravagant. The problem with public employee pay is not how much top management makes – that is a populist canard parroted incessantly by government unions and their PR firms, but it has no basis in reality. People who manage large organizations ought to make a lot of money. The problem is that school district superintendents don’t have the authority to properly manage their districts. With rare exceptions, no executive in the public sector has adequate authority to manage their organizations.

Richard Clay Wilson, a former city manager for Santa Cruz, California, in a recent essay he published in Governing entitled “Why Professional Government Doesn’t Stand a Chance,” put it this way:

“Neither the politicians in charge of government nor the employees who would be subject to it have any interest in promoting professional management. As long as this remains the case, and it looks like it may remain the case in perpetuity, institutions of government will continue to operate without professional management. The public pays a huge price for this, but as yet neither politicians nor labor have been called upon to pay any price at all.”

Put another way, unionized government serves itself instead of the public. They use taxpayer money to make or break local and state politicians in California. Then they “negotiate” with those politicians not only to impose financially unsustainable pay and benefits onto taxpayers, but also crippling work rules that remove any means for professional managers to decisively optimize the effectiveness and efficiency of public agencies.

Until school superintendents can fire incompetent principals, and until principals can fire incompetent teachers – in a process that only requires a few weeks at minimal cost – it is worth questioning why we even have public school district superintendents, much less pay them $338,482 per year, plus 2% more.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

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