School superintendents' average pay in Illinois climbed 23 percent in the last five years, a jump experts said reflects an increasingly competitive market and a number of retirees with big end-of-career raises.
The 10 highest-paid school superintendents in Illinois each earned more than $300,000 and oversaw small to large districts in the Chicago metropolitan area, according to state data.
"It is one of the most difficult jobs out there -- anywhere -- and certainly in public education, so you need to have someone who is very experienced," said Michael Lipsitz, school board president of Highland Park-based District 112 where the superintendent last year was the 10th highest paid in the state.
"And, frankly, there aren't a whole lot of people out there who meet those standards who are interested in making a move."
The 2006-07 salary data, obtained from the Illinois State Board of Education through the Freedom of Information Act, reflects self-reported information from 810 of the 871 school districts in the state.
The data showed that average superintendent salary and retirement benefits in Illinois went from about $114,000 in the 2001-02 school year to $141,000 in 2006-07. Another sign of the increased wages: 119 top school chiefs earned $200,000 or more last year compared with 26 in 2001-02.
The salary data may include retirement contributions, bonuses, annuities, compensation for unused vacation days and retirement incentives, according to the state board.
Some superintendents said their pay also reflects that they fill more than one role -- often also serving as a business manager or school principal.
Half of the top 10 earners retired at the end of the last school year and others on the list are near retirement.
Many of those who retired were exempt from a 2005 state law designed to rein in on hefty end-of-career raises because their contracts pre-dated its passage.
The law imposes an additional cost on school districts for salary increases above 6 percent during the period used to determine pension benefits, typically the last four years of a contract.
Some experts suggested the law may not have a large effect on local districts or the state retirement system over the long run. Search consultants have already seen candidates ask for more compensation at the onset in light of the law as well as a smaller pool of applicants nationwide.
"The 6 percent is having the reverse effect of what they had hoped," said Michael Johnson, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards. "It's pushed the beginning salaries up considerably."
The state data show a wide range of salaries, reflecting such variables as community resources and experience. Three of the top 10 earners last year ran one-school districts.
Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan, meanwhile, ranked far below others though he wasn't listed on the state data. Duncan, who oversees 640 schools and 410,000 students, earned $208,316 in salary and retirement benefits last year, a spokesman said.
Hinsdale tops list
The top-paid superintendent in the state last year, Mary Curley, made $385,379 as chief of the nine-school Hinsdale-based Community Consolidated School District 181 before retiring at year's end.
Just below her, Rebecca van der Bogert earned $374,496 as chief of Winnetka School District 36.
School board president Penny Lanphier said van der Bogert's salary reflects her retirement at year's end. The district has three elementary schools and two middle schools with a total of more than 2,000 pupils.
Van der Bogert's salary more than doubled -- for an increase of $190,823 -- since 2002 when she earned $183,000. Lanphier said the chief's salary has never been an issue.
"Our community is one where people move here for the school districts," Lanphier said. "They have a very high level of expectation of what the schools will be."
Supt. Dennis Kelly of LaGrange-based Lyons Township High School District 204 ranked third at $356,621. Kelly is the highest paid administrator from last year who is still on the job.
Scheduled to retire in 2009 after 42 years in education, Kelly said the salary reflects a $16,000 federal grant payment for running a model teacher recruitment program in the state and $23,000 out-of-state pension credit from a former job.
"People will say, 'Wow, nice salary, Dr. Kelly,' but usually when they tell me that, it's at a school event and they know that I'm working 75 to 80 hours a week," Kelly said.
Salary small slice of budget
Ron Gidwitz, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate and former head of the State Board of Education, said the superintendent's salary is a small portion of a district's budget. A competitive salary, he said, is justified for top performing schools.
"It's more about how responsible the school board has been in overseeing taxpayers' money," Gidwitz said. "If you have a great superintendent who is doing a great job, pay him what you can pay him."
Though some activists said salaries are too high, superintendents contend that their jobs are similar to those of corporate chief executive officers.
"Comparing it to business is really silly," said Jack Roeser, chairman of Family Taxpayers Network, which publishes annual teacher and superintendent salaries online every year. "It doesn't have any competitive pressures on it at all. If they were a business, they would all be out of business."
William Mulvaney, of Armstrong Township High School District 225, said he doesn't mind being the state's lowest-paid superintendent.
Mulvaney is paid $50,000 to oversee one high school of about 205 students in Vermilion County. But the survey doesn't reflect that last year he took on a second job, running the nearby one-school elementary district of about 109 pupils where he earned another $50,000.
"In our profession, it's the 'haves' and 'have nots,'" said Mulvaney, who also was the high school boys basketball coach.
"Most small rural districts are struggling to stay financially solvent, so they can't afford to keep up with the big salaries that a lot of [superintendents] are making."