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Viewed as an investment, a superintendent's pay can seem cheap

March 26, 2006|By TIM ROWLAND

One sentiment that seems to have unified both the educated and the uneducated in our community is that by spending an annual $150,000, Washington County has overpaid for its superintendent of schools.

Both sides are easy as pie to understand. Teachers and people who pay particularly close attention to education are bound to have their professional differences. If Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan were running a school system the way they believe one ought to be run, salary would cease to be material.

This is the way of the world. No one, for example, is harder on journalists than fellow journalists. And with more and more demands made of teachers, it is clear why they might take offense at administrators' pay that is rising at a faster level than their own - especially in a world where intuitive and creative teaching is unrewarded and even discouraged.

One day, artful, individualized education will probably make a comeback, and we will throw away test-mania, just as today we are throwing away open classrooms. When that happens, hopefully there will still be some educators around who view teaching as a craft, not a by-the-book, test-score-driven factory floor. But when you allow the federal government into the classroom, as American voters have chosen to do, this is the cost. Teachers believe they are operating under an inflexible superintendent. The superintendent believes she is operating under inflexible government guidelines. They may have a more common enemy than they think.

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On the other end of the anti-pay-raise scale is the fiery judgment of those who have never had much use for education in the first place, and can't believe we would lay out $150k for a glorified school marm - or any woman for that matter. They are the ones currently writing abusive letters to her and singing in harmony to the newspaper call-in boards.

To make matters worse for them, she doesn't back down. Here is a sentence you will never hear Betty Morgan say: "I feel very strongly that I am right, but in the spirit of cooperation, we'll try it your way instead."

J.P. Morgan is never credited with uttering that line either. Or John D. Rockefeller, or Henry Ford. The only thing worse than someone who disagrees with you is someone who disagrees with you - and is tough as nails to boot.

More - much more - than any other superintendent in the last 25 years, Morgan can walk into a room of the county's top business or political brass and command instant respect. Like her or not, she is immediately understood as a force to be reckoned with.

She is, to my knowledge, the only superintendent who asked the County Commissioners for money - and gotten every penny of it. And then made the commissioners look good by putting that funding to productive use.

Maybe you would not necessarily want to work for her. Or be within 20 miles of her office when something goes wrong. But if I have a student in the public school system, and I do, I am glad to have her on our side.

Because their are thousands of other superintendents out there in the nation and in the world, and tens of thousands of teachers who are all trying to give their kids a better education than Washington County is giving to my kid. But with Morgan and our local teachers, I feel good about my kid's chances.

School superintendents are the opposite of congressmen. You hate everyone else's congressman, but you love yours. Conversely, you look to other jurisdictions and admire their superintendent, while despising your own.

Is that surprising? Congressmen pretend to be on your side, pass legislation designed to make you feel good and bend over backward to do things your way. They get no results, but you don't mind, since they're always whispering in your ear how right you are.

The more results a superintendent gets, the more he or she is despised because results are not born of comfort. They are like muscles; you can't get them without some pain. Even past school boards, which did not have to deal with growth or global competition, knew this.

They had to change the community mindset that education was an unnecessary obstacle that interfered with the age-old tradition of dropping out of high school and drawing a good paycheck from Fairchild or Mack. They had to relay the message then that education mattered. People didn't want to hear that message 20 years ago, either.

Today, the message isn't that you need an education because the factory jobs have gone. It's that you need an aggressive education to compete with kids from Germany, Korea and Japan. That message cannot be conveyed by a superintendent who is passive.

Forget results for a minute. Forget rising test scores, lower dropout rates, school construction and academies for the best and brightest - all while conforming to the federal requirements that dictate slow children must somehow be as accomplished as bright children.

All that aside, is $150,000 too much to pay for a chief educational administrator? To a lot of people stuck in low-paying, post-industrial jobs it must surely seem so. But the answer is not to lower the superintendent's pay, but to raise everyone else's - and you do that through education.

Perhaps it might help to think of $150,000 not as a salary, but as an unselfish investment in the hope that our children will make more than we do. Viewed as such, this sum looks less like an extravagance and more like a bargain.

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