Sunday, July 31, 2011

Executive Pay Increases Require School Board Approval

An editorial by the Minneapolis Tribune properly criticized the "timing" of pay raises granted by the Minneapolis Superintendent, but the Editorial failed to understand the root causes for the problem.   If you haven't followed this story, the Strib reported that after the special session, the Superintendent approved  more than $270,000 in retroactive pay increases to executive school district staff, some of whom  had already resigned.   Now before I move along with this posting, let me say that this isn't an attack on the Superintendent or her board of education.    I'm sure the folks in Minneapolis could find fault with a number of things that we do up here in St. Cloud.  But I want to use this example to make a few points about an important issue in the area of school governance. Nor is it an attack on school leadership pay.  School leadership perform a valuable function, and they deserve to be paid appropriately. 

But the Superintendent approved these pay increases without board approval.   Her justification was that the Board of Education had recently accepted a pay study presented to the Board, and that the pay study argued that Minneapolis school leaders were underpaid as compared to similar positions in similar school districts elsewhere in the country.   She also noted that the Board Chair had been informed of the planned pay increases, although all other board members steadfastly say that they had no idea that the increases were going to be issued.

Now the Minneapolis Tribune's position is that the Superintendent should be able to approve pay increases for executive leadership, all on her own without Board approval.   This is what I call, the "Superintendent is the King (Queen) of the school district" approach to school district governance.  This is a deeply flawed, legally erroneous approach to school district governance. It arises from a mistaken belief that elected school board members should be relegated to sitting at board meetings and listening to endless reports, nodding their heads yes, and staying out of anything that really matters.  It arises from a mistaken understanding of what micromanagement really is, and what it is not.

There is a broad arena of operational details that belong to the province of the superintendent of schools and his or her cabinet. Indeed virtually all of the operational details of running a school district belong to the Superintendent or his or her delegates.   One of the great mistakes that a school board can make is to try to meddle in these daily operations.  School boards should govern on a policy basis, absolutely, but like it or not, the public regards  executive pay as a key policy issue.  Certainly, many superintendents are going to cultivate the concept that every decision that matters is the superintendent's decision, because of course, it seems easier to run a school district if nothing is policy and everything is operational.  When a board undertakes to disapprove or challenge any decision by the superintendent, some leaders try to respond by arguing that the board is committing the sin of micromanagement.   The question of where to draw the line between the board's policy role and the superintendent's operational domain is not always clear, and a superintendent will often try to push the boundaries as far as possible.

A school board approves pay increases for executive leadership because the leadership is just too close to the superintendent for the superintendent to dispassionately decide whether to provide an increase.  School board supervision is an important protection to the superintendent as well as the public.   School leaders come out of a union environment which builds a spirit of mutual self protection.   This same spirit can arise in a large business among management as well, but private business is not dealing with public funds.  Executive pay is a policy issue, because everyone looks at the leadership to get a sense of whether the leadership runs the district in an accountable way:  if the district promotes accountability at the highest level, it is much easier to develop respect for accountability throughout. 

We see in this example some of the warning signals that the boundaries have been expanded well into the Board's territory here.    The first warning sign is the statement that the Chair was informed but not the rest of the Board.     A board functions as a  whole.   Telling the Board chair that the superintendent is about to do something that could be very controversial is a danger sign that the Superintendent is looking for cover, but avoiding scrutiny by the entire board.    In these days of email, it is just as easy for the superintendent to inform the entire board as it is to inform the chair.

Minnesota school boards have an obligation to approve changes in salary before they are implemented.   Absolutely, they should listen carefully to the recommendations of the superintendent.  School boards approve all sorts of things on our consent agenda that we would never dream of disapproving.   We are required to approve every licensed teacher hired by the District.  But we don't interview teachers, we don't check their resumes, we don't ask questions or have a discussion about their merits.  Hiring teachers is an example of an area that belongs to the operational responsibility of the superintendent, but which the law allocates to the board of education  for final approval.  There are other areas where we exercise our approval with more caution.  We ask questions before we approve, but almost always we approve.

But the level of executive pay is a policy issue that should be reviewed by the school board, because that review is essential to developing public confidence that public money is being used wisely.   There is a grave danger that the public will come to believe that school leadership see themselves as part of a band of brothers and sisters who mutually need to protect their pay levels against unfair public hostility towards educational leaders.   Part of this results from the fact that these days, no matter what we pay educational leaders, there will be a gang of citizens who step forward and attack that pay, because they refuse to recognize that educational leaders are critical to the success of a school district.   But the solution doesn't lie in sweeping pay under the rug.  It lies in developing transparent procedures designed to subject these decisions to careful scrutiny by the board of education.  The Board needs to develop policies that value administrators, that create an atmosphere of fairness to the public and to the employees.   

One of the important functions of a board of education is to serve as an early warning function to tell the superintendent when he or she is about to do something that will raise a public firestorm.   When a coming decision is going to be unpopular, but correct, then it is the board of education's job to create an atmosphere of close scrutiny, so that the public knows that their representatives have carefully considered the merits.  And then, the board must step up to the plate and defend that decision with vigor.  A second important function is to say no, on occasion, when a decision doesn't make sense.

I agree with the Tribune that this decision appears to have been a mistake.  But the mistake was more systemic:  it lies in believing that public school leaders should be able to raise their own pay.

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