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Sen. Lou Ann Linehan

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn talks with Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon during the 2017 legislative session.

Journal Star file photo

School board officials representing Nebraska’s three largest school districts opposed a bill on Monday that would cap how much superintendents could be paid in the state.

But districts “100 miles from shopping” also shudder at the thought of losing the ability to pay good administrators competitive wages, Chadron Public Schools board member Boone Huffman told the Education Committee during a hearing.

Introduced by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, the bill (LB851) would limit schools from paying superintendents and administrators a salary and benefits package “in excess of five times the compensation for a beginning teacher” of that school district.

That could handcuff smaller districts like Chadron, Huffman said, where the school board needs the option to offer attractive salaries as an incentive to school administrators.

He said the district’s leader, 2016-17 Nebraska Superintendent of the Year Caroline Winchester, may not make five times the salary of a beginning teacher, but Chadron may have to consider packages topping that amount in the future.

“I think it would be very important for us to go out and get the best talent we could,” he said. “If that’s the one thing — to pay an extra $40,000 or $50,000 more to secure that candidate — I do not want to be capped by a bill in Lincoln telling us how to run our schools in Chadron.”

LB851 is not a one-size-fits-all approach, Linehan told the Education Committee, and it preserved some latitude in how school boards paid their top administrators. Instead, she said the bill was an effort to strike a balance between finding good administrators and paying teachers a livable wage.

“While our teacher compensation seems to fall at the median, some of our superintendents are far above the national median,” Linehan said, referring to a 2017 study by the American Association of School Administrators.

Nebraska teachers, she said, are paid “just above the poverty level” while senior administrators can pull in salary and benefit packages in excess of $300,000, outstripping nearly all other public employees.

This year, superintendents at Nebraska’s largest 20 school districts were paid salaries at least five times greater than the average salary of a first-year teacher, according to data from the Nebraska Department of Education and the Nebraska State Education Association.

Benefit packages, which can differ widely between school districts, were not included in the Journal Star’s comparisons.

Superintendents at Lincoln, Omaha and Grand Island public schools earn more than seven times what a beginning teacher makes in their districts, while Millard Public Schools pays its top administrator six times what a starting teacher makes this year.

Board members from those districts defended that practice, saying the salary and benefits packages are negotiated and set to attract and retain top candidates.

Imposing restrictions on how much school boards choose to pay superintendents, principals or other administrators would undermine how those officials set policy and manage budgets, those board members said.

“No one is in a better position to judge the effectiveness of a superintendent than the locally elected board,” said LPS board member Lanny Boswell, who is also the president of the Nebraska Association of School Boards, an organization of 1,700 elected leaders across the state.

“We need the flexibility to offer what the fair market demands for their talent, while still being focused on managing a responsible budget,” Boswell added.

Lacey Merica, vice president of the Omaha Public Schools board, said the board sets compensation rates it believes “are in the best interest of our students, our staff, and our whole OPS community.”

“Superintendent salaries are set by the market,” she said. “In order to get top talent, the district must be able to offer an attractive compensation package. To artificially set limits on superintendent pay could have the opposite fact from what’s intended."

Mike Pate, president of the Millard Public Schools Board of Education, said if a community feels the district isn't getting a good return on its investment, school board members can be voted out of office. “That’s local control.”

Pate cited other examples of public bodies implementing pay increases in order to recruit and retain top talent: Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert’s announcement that Police Chief Todd Schmaderer would be receiving a $33,000 salary increase to keep him at the department, and the $35 million deal the University of Nebraska struck with new head football coach Scott Frost for seven years.

Linehan said while those situations were not analogous to her bill, and while she agreed with local control of schools in concept, she reminded the committee that the state supports K-12 education to the tune of $1.5 billion: “Are we not to exercise any oversight?”

While the state’s largest school districts would be directly impacted by LB851, Huffman said Chadron’s school board's ability to rely on its own judgment in setting salary and benefits for its top administrators is directly tied into the future of the school.

“This bill is just one more mandate,” he said. “You just keep piling them on, and it should be up to us -- locally elected officials -- to run our schools as we wish.”

No action was taken on the bill Monday, but Education Committee members said they feared Linehan’s bill might be interpreted by future school boards as a mandate, effectively turning a “ceiling into a floor.”

Chairman Mike Groene of North Platte said a decade from now, school districts that only pay their superintendents three times the starting salary of a teacher might bump that figure to five times if the bill passed.

Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks offered a different interpretation of the bill, saying it was a call for Nebraska schools to increase teacher salaries.

When asked directly, Linehan did not say whether the bill was an effort to increase teacher pay, although she later said she had changed her view on teacher pay from two years ago when she said teachers were paid too much.

“I’m now more informed than two years ago,” she said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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