(Pay)checks and (Im)balances

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.

Other discrepancies are less easily explained. Former high school principal Olga Brooks, for example, is listed as a "temporary teacher" at $54,946. Terry Abbott says Brooks never served as a teacher, but instead works on "special projects" for the district and has remained in the same pay grade.

Longtime principals weren't the only HISD veterans to fare poorly in HFT's comparison. While district superintendent Kaye Stripling rates $89,653 after 34 years of service, district superintendent Erasmo Teran earns $91,629 after a mere eight years.

HISD's explanation makes little sense: Abbott says Teran had 18 years of experience before he came to HISD, so his starting salary fell at a higher point in the range than Stripling's, though she'd moved up through the ranks.

What's more, in the past year, district super Ray Reiner vaulted over both Stripling and Teran to $98,035 with a reported $13,117 raise. When a district superintendent converts to a "performance contract," he receives a $15,000 salary increase in exchange for giving up his contractual rights. But Reiner had already given up those rights as an assistant superintendent, in exchange for a $7,500 stipend. When he became a district superintendent in 1997, he got an additional $7,500 in stipend money -- without giving up any new rights.

Jimenez complains that HFT's calculations of raises are misleading, because they don't note promotions and because they imply that the raises listed occurred in a one-year period, when actually pay increases for two years are included. Jimenez says HFT compared the salaries at the beginning of the 199697 school year, which did not yet include raises for that year, to salaries after raises were given in the 199798 year.

"He's lying," Fallon says. She contends HFT calculated its figures based on salaries after raises were given in 199697. (She admits, though, that the raise figures do not note promotions.)

When the Press inquired about two cases, it turned out that HFT's figures were correct in one instance and incorrect in the other. As HFT reported, middle school assistant principal Roy Morgan began the 199697 school year at $41,096, was promoted to principal in the middle of the year and now makes $60,797. Again, the $7,500 "performance contract" stipend was a large part of his $19,701 increase in pay. HFT also reported that Jefferson Elementary's Ana Zamarripa earned $41,433 in 199697 as an assistant principal; the district says it was $45,547. Nevertheless, both agree on her current salary: $61,235.

Another astronomical increase went to Chief of Staff Susan Sclafani, who zoomed from $75,012 in 1995, when she served as chief of staff, to her current $116,448 as chief of staff of instructional services. When the district reorganized in September 1996, it created two chief of staff positions, one for instructional services and one for business, and equalized their salaries. The district maintains that Sclafani's duties increased, but Fallon says they decreased, and there was no reason for the raise. "They made the salaries equal for both positions," says Fallon. "But why?"

Some of the largest increases in pay went to employees whose jobs are computer-related. According to HFT's figures, the salary for Assistant Superintendent for Technology and Information Systems Daryl Borel soared from $72,216 in 1994 to $96,900 in 1998, and Manager of Networking Operations William Edwards's take rose from $59,253 in 1996 to $84,460 in 1998. "No matter where you look," Jimenez says, "whether you're working for a school district or for Dow Chemical, technology people are extremely expensive, and their salaries are skyrocketing. We constantly lose people."

Though district salaries are a matter of public record, they are rarely published in such a digestible format, so it's not surprising that this issue of The Federation Teacher is a hot property. "It's not the teachers that have come calling. It's the administrators. We should be charging for these things," says HFT president Fallon. "We'd make a fortune.... I wouldn't want to be [Superintendent] Rod Paige at the next principals' meeting."

Abbott says the range system allows the district the flexibility to meet market demand. "We request that in reporting this story, the Houston Press make an effort to compare HISD salaries with those in other districts, keeping in mind that we are about 25 percent larger than any other school district in Texas," Abbott says. It's well known that Paige is not the most highly paid superintendent in the Houston area, and a cursory examination revealed that most HISD salaries are roughly commensurate with those in other large districts in Texas. But no other district came close to matching Abbott's salary -- $112,000 -- for a public relations flack. Abbott's counterpart in the Dallas Independent School District makes $62,730.  

Opponents of the range system argue that it allows the district to place people with regard to patronage, rather than experience or performance. In Abbott's case, former mayoral candidate Robert Mosbacher recommended him for the job.

Still, Abbott, a former United Press International bureau chief, says that $110,000 is what it took to get him to Houston. "I don't know of anyone anywhere with the kind of experience I have," he says. "Certainly not in schools."

Some argue that school districts should not even try to compete with the private sector. School board member Carol Galloway, who also works for HFT, says the high salaries don't make much sense. "My philosophy was, taxpayers' money has never been compatible with private-sector salaries.

"We have a shortage of teachers, not of high-level specialists in administration," Galloway points out.

At the recommendation of an audit performed by state Comptroller John Sharp, the district's school board no longer approves new hires -- making it the only district in Texas that doesn't. Some board members say that the board may have overcompensated when faced with Sharp's accusations of "micromanagement" and undue influence over contracts.

But when Galloway spearheaded an effort to restore the board's oversight in March, business and community leaders saw it as a step backward for reform and lobbied heavily against the measure, which the board then tabled indefinitely.

Though the board is not likely to revisit the issue anytime soon, Fallon suggests a possible compromise. Rather than "micromanaging" every new hire, the board could resume oversight only on hires that are going to be paid above the midpoint of their range.

More importantly, says board member Gabriel Vasquez, the board should investigate ways to tie salary levels to performance.

He says, "The real issue is this, in my opinion: Are we putting highly qualified people in these positions? Unfortunately, at this time, there is no objective system in place for determining that."

E-mail staff writer Shaila Dewan at

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