H.T. Sanchez's New Contract and Salary Deal

TUSD's Superintendent H.T. Sanchez has a new contract that extends his stay through 2018. His supporters are cheering because it means continuity of leadership, something the district hasn't had in ages, from someone they believe is a competent, steady hand at the helm. His detractors are booing, saying he's an overpaid, under-competent superintendent, and the sooner we get rid of him the better. I'm planning to get into the actual salary and bonus issues eventually, but it'll take me awhile, so if you're not interested in my views on Sanchez, superintendents and school districts, you can save yourself some time by skipping down to the paragraph that begins, "Let's look at Sanchez's contract, salary and benefits." Meanwhile . . .

Most of the discussion over Sanchez comes down to one question: Is he good or bad for TUSD? If you're one of those people who think he's a bad superintendent who is destroying the district with his ego and ineptitude, then you're right to think he should go, the sooner the better. If he's as bad as you say, he's being paid too much even if he's working for free.

I don't share that view. I think Sanchez is basically competent and knowledgable, and I think he's decisive enough to take steps that can help move the district forward. I give him generally positive marks for the job he's done at TUSD. He's far from perfect. He has some ego and control issues that bother me, and he's certainly made mistakes, some of which I've written about here. Recently, I'm disturbed about the district's continually declining enrollment, and I wish Sanchez could figure out some way to turn the numbers around, but I also know this isn't a new issue. If enrollment levels were steady or increasing before he came, TUSD schools would have been full, and the issue of school closures that rocked the district before Sanchez arrived never would have come up. I also hate the idea of substitute teachers being outsourced to a private company, because I don't like seeing public services privatized. I think the district is balancing the budget on the backs of its substitutes, who make poor salaries at best and apparently are paid less at TUSD than neighboring districts. This could end up hurting the district in the long run by making it even harder to find the substitutes it needs to function. But if it's really a million-dollar-plus budget issue that's being considered as the district struggles to balance its budget, it's as much a problem of the state's underfunding our schools as it is a problem caused by Sanchez.

So, since I have those and other concerns, if I see multiple problems with Sanchez himself and things he's done since he's been at TUSD, why do I support him?

I taught under a number of superintendents during my thirty year tenure as a public high school teacher in the Portland, Oregon, area, and none of them made the kinds of dramatic changes that turned schools or students around. I no more believe in the magic superintendent who can turn educational darkness into light than I believe in magic "education reform" schools which take low performing student bodies and turn them into Harvard material. Both myths are destructive to our system of education. We absolutely need to pursue excellence every way we can, but we also need to understand that miracles are rare; otherwise they wouldn't be called miracles. If we expect miracles from teachers, schools and superintendents, almost all of them, even the best, will come up short.

If there is someone out there who has the skills to make TUSD a dramatically better place than it is now, I say, offer that superintendent a million dollars a year to come here, and maybe throw in a free house and a car. No price would be too great to pay for a leader who could make our students shine, guaranteeing them an education so stellar, they would outstrip their peers anywhere in the country. But, much as I scour the news looking for examples of these kind of game changers, I just can't seem to find them.

Well, that's not entirely true. I can think of two superintendents who looked like they succeeded beyond most superintendent's, and district's, wildest dreams.

One was Superintendent Beverly Hall in Atlanta, Georgia. Students' test scores went up so dramatically under her tenure, she was named 2009 National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators. The problem is, the Atlanta test cheating scandal under her watch was the biggest ever uncovered, and some people are serving time for their part in the test manipulation.

The other was Superintendent Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC, whose style and successes were so spectacular, she made magazine covers and went on all kinds of TV shows touting her accomplishments. The problem is, Rhee is a borderline sociopath who lied about her accomplishments as a teacher, and when it was found that some of the D.C. schools with the greatest increases in test scores most likely cheated, she wasn't interested in investigating the allegations. She left D.C. and went on to found Students First, an "education reform"/privatization organization that got millions in funding from the usual privatization sources, but she had to leave her own organization recently because she was such a polarizing figure.

So my criteria for a good school superintendent don't include the ability to take a large, urban, majority-minority district and move it ahead by leaps and bounds. I want someone who has a reasonable vision for the district and is taking strong steps—even willing to risk mistakes—to move the district in the right direction. By my lights, Sanchez fits that description. I criticize him for his missteps, but I put them into the larger context of the problems facing the district and the overall leadership he's provided.

With all that in mind . . .

Let's look at Sanchez's contract, salary and benefits. His first year's base pay was $210,000. His base pay is now $240,000 [Update: It looks like the Board's decision to raise his base from $210,000 to $240,000 isn't allowed, meaning his current base pay is $210,000], and it will top out at $280,000 in the final year of his new contract. The former superintendent, John Pedicone, had a base salary of $215,000. I'm not sure whether superintendent salaries should be that high. I do know that the average superintendent salary for districts with over 25,000 students is about $212,000, so if the TUSD board wanted to hold onto Sanchez, or any new superintendent, it had to offer a comparable salary or he'd be out the door as soon as he got a significantly better offer. I can do enough math to figure out that, with about 50,000 students in the district, Sanchez is getting a little under $5 per student. Using that per-head formula, Vail's Superintendent Calvin Baker should be getting around $60,000 for his 12,500 students, as should Marana Superintendent Doug Wilson. Obviously I'm not being fair to the other superintendents, but it puts Sanchez's salary as superintendent of one of the two biggest districts in the state in perspective. In Mesa, the other large district, the superintendent's salary was $180,000 in 2014, but you have to add to that his "$900 monthly car allowance, $10,000 annually into a deferred compensation plan, $12,000 annually for a tax-deferred annuity and $5,000 a year for memberships to civic and professional groups." Sanchez's salary is the higher of the two, but not wildly higher.

Which brings us to the issue of bonuses. Sanchez gets about $12,000 in performance-based compensation each year if he meets his goals which, not surprisingly, the board always says he does. Sanchez detractors complain that, while the previous two superintendents donated their bonuses to the TUSD Educational Enrichment Foundation, Sanchez kept his. Fair enough. It's his bonus, and he decided to keep it. Fault him for selfishness if you wish, but it's his money.

Sanchez was also given a big stick-around incentive. If he lasted three years, he was promised an extra $124,000. Excessive? Maybe. But the board wanted some continuity in leadership which it hadn't had in a long time, so it decided to give him a healthy incentive to stay. Detractors have said he'd stick around until the three years were up, then take the money and run. It looks like they were wrong, since he's committed to three more years. That doesn't mean he's guaranteed to stay—if he wants out of his contract, he can get out of it—but it looks like Sanchez is planning a commitment to the district beyond his substantial one-time reward. [Based on some information I just read, he's being offered a $25,000 bonus for each of the last two years of the new contract he completes.]

Which brings us full circle. If you don't want Sanchez to stay, you're gnashing your teeth right now. There's nothing you'd like better than the twofold pleasure of saying, "See, I told you he'd leave after three years," then watching him go. But if you want Sanchez to stay, you get the twofold pleasure of saying, "See, I told you he wasn't just hanging around for the bonus," then seeing him sit in the superintendent's chair for a few more years.