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School chiefs offer a lesson in perks Even small districts find money for lavish benefit packages

Akron might be one of the smallest school districts in the region, but its superintendent is one of the best paid, when the lucrative benefits in his contract are factored in.

Niagara Falls pays its superintendent fairly modestly. His payoff will come when he retires and cashes in his unused sick days and vacation time. The current cash value for both comes to $216,897 -- a figure that will boost his pension.

For Newfane's superintendent, the biggest payoff of all will come when it's time to cash in his $1 million life insurance policy. For Newfane taxpayers, though, the bill has already come due, with premiums costing $34,610 a year.

A Buffalo News review of 37 school superintendents' contracts in Erie and Niagara counties found that the most generous benefits generally were given to the longer-tenured superintendents, often in smaller districts, and heavily concentrated in Niagara County.

Superintendents say their knowledge and skills make their experience extremely valuable to their districts. In a market with fewer and fewer applicants each time there's an opening, many districts are eager to find ways to keep the superintendents they have.

"That experience results in good management practices, and it avoids costly mistakes," said Newfane Superintendent James N. Mills, who earns $190,816 a year. "For example, a rookie superintendent that allows an architect to charge 8.5 percent for a contract when the going rate is 7.25 [percent] has just wasted an enormous amount of money."

But at a time when many dis tricts are pushing employees to pick up part of the tab for health insurance, most superintendents enjoy fully paid health coverage. Ten carry the Cadillac of policies, Traditional BlueCross BlueShield. About half will enjoy lifelong health insurance at taxpayer expense.

A few drive district-owned cars. Many others get several thousand dollars a year to cover the cost of their local mileage, regardless of how far they drive.

Other benefits are more particular to certain districts. The superintendent in Niagara-Wheatfield is guaranteed $5,000 in moving expenses once she retires. The North Collins school chief earns one comp day for every snow day he works. A few get money put on debit cards for unreimbursed medical expenses.

It's a seller's market, with schools knee-deep in a superintendent shortage and sinking deeper each year. Once a district finds a leader it is comfortable with, the school board is likely to do what it takes to keep that person, in the interest of long-term stability.

Yet even with pay and benefits factored in, local superintendents still make an average of about 20 percent less than their colleagues in the Rochester area, and 10 percent less than their counterparts in the Syracuse area, according to 2005-06 information superintendents across New York reported to the state Education Department.

"Our salaries look big, and I'm sure I'm making more than the average person in Grand Island. But when you look at the market, the qualifications and the competition, I'm not going to apologize for what I'm making," said Grand Island Superintendent Thomas M. Ramming, who earns $150,330 a year and is retiring at the end of June.

>Salary and incentives

The Akron School Board hired Ronald G. DeCarli in 2000 for $100,000. He already had 3 1/2 years experience as the superintendent in Hinsdale, a small district near Olean.

Each year since then, the school board has evaluated DeCarli's performance, as every school board does. Akron board members have been pleased.

This year, DeCarli's base salary increased to $148,029. The board has also included a $900 monthly stipend to cover his transportation costs, a $2,791 longevity stipend, $2,500 for medical costs and put $27,500 into a tax-sheltered annuity.

Add it up, and DeCarli will get $191,620 this school year, in addition to his fully paid Traditional BlueCross health, dental and vision insurance. That makes his compensation one of the highest among Erie County's 28 school districts, despite the fact Akron is the fifth-smallest district in the county.

"What my district has done is put out incentives for me. As they evaluate me each year and look at my performance, they give me incentives for staying on with the district," he said. "If I don't do the job, I don't get anything. If I do do the job, my performance merits what I have."

Because Akron is so small, it does not have any assistant superintendents, so more responsibilities fall on his shoulders, DeCarli said. The district saves the cost of paying someone to oversee human resources, because the superintendent does it; nor does the district pay an attorney to handle labor negotiations, because DeCarli handles them.

As is the case in Akron, the tendency to beef up benefits is increasingly common.

A survey by the New York State Council of School Superintendents showed that, while superintendent salaries across the state increased an average of 5.4 percent a year, benefits went up 15 percent one recent year.

"Boards are willing to provide more, sometimes, in benefits than they are in salary. People tend to focus on that salary and compare it to what they're making," said Vincent J. Coppola, a local consultant who conducts superintendent searches. "If they think it's more than the community should be offering, they'll come to board meetings and scream and holler."

But when residents become aware of the value of those nonsalary benefits, the reactions aren't always positive.

Brian Hellner is co-founder of Newfane Citizens for Accountability and Responsibility in Our Educational System. The group recently learned that Newfane is paying $34,610 in annual premiums on a $1 million whole life insurance police for its superintendent, helping to push Mills' gross earnings in 2005 above $190,000.

"In effect, it's just another way to increase his salary. They're trying to fool the taxpayers," Hellner said.

Mills says his package is comparable to those in other districts. He doesn't take health insurance from Newfane because he's still covered by Silver Creek, his previous district. And he won't get post-retirement insurance from Newfane, unlike most other superintendents.

"What you see in my contract is the district's entire, complete obligation, which is quite different from virtually everyone else's," Mills said.

Four out of five local superintendents will receive some level of health coverage after they retire, with most getting coverage at least through age 65. About half of that group will receive lifetime coverage, with some getting fully paid benefits.

"Boards are using golden handcuffs," Coppola said. "They'll try to use [health coverage] as a way of keeping a superintendent there. Sometimes they use that in lieu of some salary increases. They know that is a big, important benefit."

>Cashing in sick time

Every local superintendent gets to cash in either accrued vacation or sick time, or both, upon retirement. For most, the number of days is capped.

Among newer superintendents, the common practice seems to be cashing in vacation days for a pro-rated pay -- but usually capped at somewhere between five and 45 days.

Unused sick time is different. Several forfeit any unused sick days. Some others can turn them in when they retire -- but for credit toward post-retirement health insurance, not cash. Often, unused sick days are worth a fraction of a regular day's pay, sometimes $50 or $75 for each unused sick day.

Longer-serving superintendents often have more generous cash-in guidelines, sometimes with no limit on the number of days they can accrue.

Niagara Falls Superintendent Carmen A. Granto has accrued more value in his unused time off than any of his local colleagues. After working in the district nearly four decades -- including 14 years as superintendent -- Granto has accrued 747 sick days and 45 vacation days. If he were to retire at the end of this year, that would translate into $216,897, based on his current salary.

"They wanted to keep me here, and that's one of the ways they kept me," he said. "That termination package benefit is no different than any of the other employees in the district, other than the fact that mine's not capped. Other employees are capped at 300 sick days."

Because Granto joined the state retirement system before 1971, he's part of what's known as Tier 1. The lump sum he receives will help boost the average salary in his final work years -- which, in turn, will increase his annual pension.

Local school boards recognize that they're not only competing with one another for a limited pool of qualified superintendents, they're also competing with the rest of the state.

"Western New York will lose a certain number of people to the New York metropolitan suburbs, where the salaries are much higher," said David Ernst, spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association.

"The way the retirement system works, it's your three highest earning years, the average of that becomes the base on which they compute your retirement benefits. It's tempting if you're willing to make the move and find a substantial difference in the retirement benefits you're eligible for."

While superintendents' salaries are substantially higher than most residents' salaries, school chiefs are paid considerably less than their counterparts in the private sector, Ernst said.

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com

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