By Thomas Kaplan
February 7, 2011
Carole G. Hankin, the schools superintendent in Syosset on Long Island, made an unexpected cameo appearance in Albany last week: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo cast her salary as a prime example of wasteful spending by school districts.
Mr. Cuomo did not mention Dr. Hankin by name in his budget address, but he did offer her salary: $386,868, more than the pay of any other superintendent in the state. “I applied for that job,” the governor joked, adding that he had decided to run for governor, which pays $179,000, only after he had been rejected.
Mr. Cuomo’s remarks came as he presented a budget calling for a $2.85 billion reduction in local school aid, a proposal that has already drawn fierce criticism from educators. But the governor offered some criticism of his own for school officials.
Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, said that school districts had enough means to withstand the decline in state financing, and pointedly suggested that they look at whether they are spending too much on their own bureaucracy.
More than 40 percent of New York State’s superintendents earn at least $200,000 each year in salary and benefits, Mr. Cuomo said.
“I understand that they sometimes have to manage budgets, and sometimes the budgets are difficult,” he said. “But why they get paid more than the governor of the state I really don’t understand.”
Mr. Cuomo repeated his joke about coveting Dr. Hankin’s job in encore presentations of his budget plan in Purchase, in Westchester County, and in Amherst, near Buffalo.
“We have $500,000 school superintendents,” he told reporters after his appearance in Purchase. “We can’t pay those kinds of salaries.”
Mr. Cuomo is not the only governor grappling with deep financial problems who has singled out school district leaders.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is imposing a cap of $175,000 on most superintendents’ salaries, depending on district enrollment, and Mr. Cuomo’s criticism raised the specter that he might pursue a similar path.
A spokesman for Mr. Cuomo, John Milgrim, declined to discuss whether the governor was considering a cap of his own. Mr. Milgrim would say only that despite the proposed school-aid cut, Mr. Cuomo believed that layoffs “are not inevitable and that school districts have numerous ways they can bring down costs and be more efficient, including a reining in of salaries of superintendents and other administrative personnel.”
As attorney general, Mr. Cuomo investigated cases of school administrators who earned salaries and pensions simultaneously, a practice known as double dipping. Aides to Mr. Cuomo suggested that the governor viewed superintendent salaries as another example of government spending that is far beyond the state’s means given the fiscal conditions.
But the issue of school administrators’ salaries also offers an alternate villain to parents angry about the governor’s proposed cuts to school aid.
Whatever Mr. Cuomo’s motivation, his comments upset some school superintendents.
“The state and the schools are facing difficult times that ultimately require strong leadership,” said Robert N. Lowry Jr., the deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “Superintendents are trying to provide that leadership, and in many districts, they have passed up raises or made other concessions to save money for their districts and also to set an example.”
Mr. Lowry noted that the average salary for a superintendent — about $163,000 last year — was far from the figures Mr. Cuomo has been citing. (The national average is about $160,000, according to the Educational Research Service.)
Mr. Lowry added that the dollar savings from reducing superintendent pay would amount to an insignificant sum in comparison with Mr. Cuomo’s cut to local school aid. Billy Easton, the executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, which opposes the school-aid cut, sounded a similar note.
“There is a huge disconnect,” Mr. Easton said, “between the governor focusing on the top 1 percent of superintendent salaries and offering a fiscally irrational tax cut to people making the same amount of money, or 10 times that.”
The debate over school superintendent pay is a well-worn one. Nowhere is this more the case than on Long Island, where school officials have typically drawn some of the highest salaries in the state.
School boards that pay what some consider eye-popping salaries often say that running a school district is an exceedingly hard job with long hours, and that excellent superintendents are scarce. They note that a school system’s reputation is often the main reason that families move to certain communities. Beyond that, property values are influenced in a big way by that reputation — and so a top superintendent is well worth the cost to taxpayers.
But no one disputes that in some places the cost can be substantial. Adding in benefits, expense accounts and other compensation, Dr. Hankin, who is in her 21st year as superintendent in Syosset, will make about $506,000 this year, according to a filing with the State Education Department.
Dr. Hankin would not comment on Mr. Cuomo’s criticism, but the president of the Syosset Board of Education, Dr. Marc W. Herman, described her pay as “consistent with superintendents of top-performing districts on Long Island and Westchester County.”
“Our school district’s transparency, academic achievements and fiscal accountability serve as a role model for the State of New York,” Dr. Herman said in a statement. “Dr. Hankin’s current compensation package is befitting of her many contributions to our district.”
Three other superintendents, in the Long Island communities of Jericho, Levittown and Bay Shore, will earn a total compensation package worth more than $400,000, and 53 other superintendents in the state will collect upward of $300,000 in all. (The New York City schools chancellor, Cathleen P. Black, earns $250,000 per year, though that figure does not include benefits.)
Similarly high salaries in New Jersey drew criticism from Mr. Christie, a Republican. When he announced his proposed cap in July, he explained that he saw it as the government’s responsibility “to ensure that as many education dollars remain in the classroom as possible.”
His new regulations, which will go into effect on Monday, have been challenged in a lawsuit filed by the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.
But the idea of a pay cap piqued the interest of State Senator Charles J. Fuschillo Jr., a Republican from Nassau County. In his hometown, Merrick, the superintendent, Ranier W. Melucci, has a compensation package totaling about $313,000 this year. Mr. Fuschillo suggested recently that the New York Legislature pursue a measure similar to Mr. Christie’s.
“When the governor raised it, I was very pleased,” Mr. Fuschillo said, referring to Mr. Cuomo. “I had never heard him talk about it before.”