(Pay)checks and (Im)balances

Fat starting salaries! Hefty raises! HISD says its administrators deserve them.

Under the heading "Who Does HISD Really Value as Employees?" the Houston Federation of Teachers' April newsletter printed a list of what the Houston Independent School District pays its top administrators. The data read like a chi-chi employment advertisement for HISD, with robust starting salaries, ample upgrades and sky-high raises. According to the list, 44 administrators' salaries have increased by more than $10,000 each since the beginning of the 199697 school year; one computer network manager got a $25,213 raise. More than 130 administrators make over $60,000 a year, and that number doesn't include principals: The highest paid of those is pushing $93,000. HISD looks like a great place to work -- if you're an administrator, and especially if you're new to the system.

But those figures don't please everyone -- especially the district's teachers, who average a piddling $33,220 a year (in teacher pay, HISD ranks tenth out of 16 Houston-area districts). By contrast, the union argues, administrative salaries are bloated and growing. "Every year we hear it's leaner and meaner," says union president Gayle Fallon. "But they have more [administrators], and they're paying them more."

Even within the HISD administration, the data reveal significant inequities. Those seeking employment at the top levels in the district today might indeed be wooed by high salaries, but those who have spent decades serving the district fare less well in HFT's comparison. For example, Lamar High School Principal James McSwain, hired last year from a district in Texarkana, earns a healthy $82,500, almost as much as Washington High School Principal Ira Wesley, who has put in nearly 50 years of service. This discrepancy might make sense, considering that Lamar is roughly twice the size of Washington, but the Hispanic principals of three larger high schools -- Milby, Austin and Sam Houston -- make about $5,000 less than McSwain, who is Anglo, though they've been with the district 28, 25 and 15 years, respectively.

The district argues that the law of supply and demand determined McSwain's salary. "Some of our schools have budgets in excess of $10 million," says HISD Press Secretary Terry Abbott, explaining that the district has to pay top dollar for top people. "It's a business. Education is becoming more and more market-driven."

"When you're asking for that quality of principal -- and we've been hiring some really great principals -- you have to pay what the market demands," adds Deputy Superintendent of Human Resources Michael Jimenez.

But quality doesn't factor into the pay of principals who, like Wesley, are already in the district. Though new hires are courted based on their credentials, inside the district, salaries and raises are not determined by performance. Principals and administrators are regularly evaluated, but the results don't affect their salaries. In fact, Jimenez says, there's no way for an administrator to get a raise based on merit; they only get across-the-board raises, promotions or "upgrades" based on changes in job description, unless the district is worried they're going to get hired away.

Under the salary ranges adopted in 1996, HISD principals fit into one of three salary grades based on the size of their school. In most cases, elementary principals earn between $45,700 and $72,900 a year; middle school principals, between $51,200 and $82,200; and high school principals, between $58,800 and $94,600. When a current employee is promoted to principal, his salary increases for three reasons: The length of his contract increases; he gets a 5 or 10 percent raise because he's advancing one or more pay grades; and he gets a $7,500 stipend as part of a "performance contract" that gives the HISD the option not to renew his employment.

According to the district salary manual, principals hired from outside the district receive 5 percent more than the minimum salary in their range for every two years of previous experience, up to ten years. If HISD stuck to that formula, a new principal could make only 25 percent more than the minimum salary in his or her range.

Superintendent Rod Paige, though, can override the formula at will. That's why McSwain, whose five years of credit would bring him $71,000, takes home $82,500.

Jimenez says HISD is looking into ways to correct the inequities created by high-dollar new hires like McSwain. "If [HISD veterans have] more experience as a principal, but they're below the center point, then it probably is an indication that we need to do something," Jimenez admits.

Of course, every contract is signed under unique circumstances, which contributes to the seemingly nonsensical pay schedule. In 1996, the district hired a consulting firm, the Wyatt Corporation, to help standardize pay scales in the district. But so far, Wyatt and HISD have been unable to agree on the economic value of many employees, including Faye Bryant, the deputy superintendent for school administration, who makes $103,146 a year. Bryant remains unclassified under the Wyatt system, and Jimenez says that even if Bryant were reclassified to a lower salary range, she would not take a pay cut.

In other cases, employees who are reassigned to lower-paying positions get to keep their old salaries. Lloyd Choice, HISD's highest-paid principal, worked in central administration until he suffered health problems and went into what HISD calls the "School of Abatement" -- essentially, paid medical leave. When Choice returned, he was given a principalship at Yates High School. But because his previous salary fit just within the appropriate range, he did not take a cut in pay.

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