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School Salary Structure Scrutinized

Superintendent's proposal raises eyebrows.

School superintendent Rebecca L. Perry’s proposed administrative salary structure for central office staff is raising questions about the system’s fiscal responsibility.

Perry has submitted the proposal twice now to the School Board’s Human Resources Committee. Both times the committee has sent the proposal back for further study, most recently on June 3.

The minutes of the June 2 committee meeting written by chairman Mark Wilkoff summed it up, saying, “The general consensus was that … the administrative group needed to do more work on the proposal before it was ready for any kind of committee action and subsequent Board action.

“The committee asked the administrative group to address several key issues: (1) The interrelationship between base salary and benefits and how that plays into any comparison between Alexandria City Public Schools and other jurisdictions; (2) How we could better market our benefits package to prospective new administrators; (3) Elimination of unassigned salary lanes; (4) Use of a consultant to help with developing the structure as a way to add credibility; (5) The possibility of taking the top people … out of the salary schedule and allowing the superintendent to manage payroll for those positions; (6) The salary structure of the executive assistant to the superintendent; (7) Possibility of developing a separate scale for building administrators; (8) Consider expanding the steps in each lane with smaller increments; (9) The affordability of the new salary structure compared to surrounding jurisdictions; and (10) Closer examination of the actual number of days worked compared with surrounding jurisdictions.”

Wilkoff explained some of the concerns saying, “We need to look at these salaries holistically including our benefits. We have a very good benefits package, and the staff has not adequately compared that with the benefits packages that are offered by other jurisdictions,” he said.

AS TO THE PROPOSED salary for the superintendent’s executive assistant, “I’m not sure that we need an executive assistant at this salary level, and we need to have a better understanding of that person’s duties and responsibilities,” Wilkoff said.

The position of executive assistant to the superintendent was created by former ACPS superintendent Herbert M. Berg. The current salary range is $57,512 to $87,301. In her first proposal to the Human Resources Committee, Perry proposed a range of $80,634 to $123,901. The latest proposal suggested a salary range of $80,634 to $108,057. This is the same salary schedule that is being proposed for elementary school principals.

In addition to an executive assistant, Perry has an associate superintendent, three assistant superintendents, directors of elementary and secondary education programs, an executive director of communications and outreach and numerous staff supporting these individuals.

The proposed range for the associate superintendent is $112,480 to $129,210, higher than Salary Grade 30 for city department heads such as the director of Parks and Recreation, the director of the Office of Housing, the director of Management and Budget and the director of Personnel Services, with a range of $73,912 to $119,551. The salary range for the associate superintendent is also higher than the city’s Salary Grade 31, which has a range of $77,602 to $125,520. This level includes the salaries of the director of Planning and Zoning, the director of Transportation and Environmental Services, the fire chief, the chief of police and the sheriff, among others.

THE SUPERINTENDENT'S proposed salary range for the directors of elementary and secondary programs was $88,634 to $118,778, the same as that being proposed for the principal at T.C. Williams High School. The proposed salary ranges for two assistant superintendents, one for business and administration and one for human resources, was $109,126 to $125,327. The proposed salary range for the executive director of communications and for monitoring and evaluation was $88,634 to $118,778.

“We are unclear whether there is adequate money to pay for these proposals, but that is moot now because we have sent the entire proposal back for further study,” Wilkoff said.

There is $250,000 in the budget to pay for these salary changes, according to Board member V. Rodger Digilio. “Implementing these ranges would not cost so much initially, but in five years or so, the cost would be exorbitant,” he said.

The superintendent’s salary, at $168,000 per year, is more than that of City Manager Phil Sunderland, who earns $159,837 per year.

The proposal has left many parents questioning why the superintendent has cut funds for copiers and other school supplies, reportedly because of the net $200,000 cut that the school system absorbed as a result of the city budget process. The superintendent and many Board members fought to retain their entire budget despite across-the-board city departmental budget cuts.

“The ability to duplicate classroom materials in a timely and efficient manner is a primary need for all teachers,” said Michelle Brandon, outgoing PTA Council president. “Elimination of the funding for this program does not reconcile well with the current deliberations over administrative pay scales. We believe there is a need to revise the compensation of administrators; it cannot be done at the cost of student achievement.”

The superintendent will submit another proposal to the Human Resources Committee at some point.

THIS BUDGET maneuver comes on the heels of revelations of budget actions that Perry took as superintendent of schools in Mecklenburg County. An audit there revealed that during her last year as superintendent, Perry or members of her staff moved approximately $1.2 million in categorical funds from one area to another without obtaining the required authorization. Funds there were moved into several areas and not specifically to one account.

Results of the audit were forwarded to the Mecklenburg County commonwealth attorney for review. He determined that the issues raised in the audit did not rise to the level of criminal activity.

“From time to time, questions arise about how schools are managed,” Perry said. “A public official should welcome the opportunity to have a third party take a closer look at any areas under question. I was always confident that the outcome of this would be positive because of the excellent management practices of the Mecklenburg County public schools.

“A question arose from an audit surrounding the expenditure of funds in a different category from where it was originally budgeted. These funds were clearly spent for school purposes, and there was no suggestion of missing or misused funds. Further, the expenditures were within the yearly budget,” she said.

THE ALEXANDRIA SCHOOL BOARD became aware of the Mecklenburg audit in October 2002, when an individual in Mecklenburg County sent Board members copies of stories that had appeared in the local press.

“We discussed the matter with persons both in Mecklenburg and around the state who were familiar with the situation,” Rodger Digilio said. “The superintendent and the media informed us about the outcome of the commonwealth attorney’s investigation.”

School Board chairman Mark Eaton was aware of the matter but does not believe that it will have any impact on Perry’s ability to run the Alexandria public school system. “Rather than focusing on what she did in her past job, we need to focus on what she is doing here,” he said.

“I did not contact anyone in Mecklenburg County to make specific inquiries because I wanted to let the investigation take its course,” said Eaton.

While that investigation was still in progress, in February of this year, the Alexandria City School Board extended Perry’s contract by four years and gave her a raise. When she was hired, she was paid a base salary plus incentives for seeing that more schools got accredited, among other things. Those incentives were deleted from the new contract and she is paid a flat salary. Her contract did not need to be renegotiated until the end of next year.

Eaton noted that moving categorical funds without appropriate authorization is a serious matter. “It is very important to adhere to the rules and regulations of any financial system,” he said.

Alexandria does not fund its school system by allocating monies by category, except to distinguish between capital and operating expenditures. Categorical funding for the schools, however, is an option. “It is my understanding from the city attorney that City Council can choose to use categorical funding for the superintendent’s budget,” said Councilwoman Claire Eberwein. “Perhaps this is an option the next Council should explore.”

Now, however, under the current structure, Eaton sees no reason for concern. “This kind of issue would never arise here,” Eaton said. “We have pretty strict guidelines on moving money from one budget area to another.”

DURING PERRY'S first few months as superintendent, such an issue arose. While looking at the reconciled FY ‘02 budget, Board members discovered funding for items about which they had no recollection. One such item was money for refurnishing and recarpeting the superintendent’s office. Another was a counselor position for central office.

“I asked about these items and was told that they were included in the reconciled budget that we passed in November of 2001,” Digilio said.

Eaton, too, remembers the incident. “I think we made it clear that we expected a greater level of disclosure when money is moved,” he said. “We expressed our displeasure very strongly.”

Each year the budget is reconciled once City Council adds any adjustments such as a cost of living increase to the proposed school budget. When money is moved between budget categories, the School Board receives a chart, identifying these items specifically. This was not done with regard to the money that was moved in the FY ‘02 budget. The money for the furniture and carpet had already been spent, but some of the other items were deleted.

“Budget manipulation only works once, and then credibility is lost,” said Eberwein. “Eventually the truth comes out. The school administration spent a good deal of time scaring parents about teacher cuts, despite $1 million in teacher reserves. But this is about choices.

"When the School Board is scheduling work sessions to understand a budget that the City Council has already passed, the public needs to be aware. For example, funding new technology initiatives and salary increases that are out of sync with those of city staff, while cutting needed classroom services such as copying machines and school supplies, has a direct impact on student achievement, and it is not positive.”

For her part, Perry is confident in her ability to lead the school system. “I take very seriously my responsibility to uphold the public trust in me and the public schools I lead,” she said. “I am fully committed to transparency in all aspects of managing a school budget.”