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Replacing Comeau may be costly for the School District

Rosemary Shinohara
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

Anchorage School Superintendent Carol Comeau, one of Alaska's most respected public officials, is also one of the lowest-paid school superintendents among the nation's urban districts.

Over the years, she kept refusing raises, saying budgets were too tight. She makes $165,000 a year plus some basic benefits.

Now the district needs to replace her, and to even hit the average among the nation's large school districts, it would have to increase the pay to $239,000, says a report from the Council of the Great City Schools, a national coalition of the country's biggest districts, including Anchorage.

That's not all. A significant number of large-district superintendents like Anchorage's get bonuses and cars or car allowances, which Comeau didn't take.

Comeau, retiring June 30, 2012, heads a district that serves about 49,000 students, with an annual budget of more than $800 million and 6,500 regular employees.

"Anchorage has gotten a huge benefit from her commitment to the city at extremely low prices," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, who knows Comeau. The council praised her leadership in a recent review of Anchorage's K-8 math program. And Comeau is on the council's executive committee.

In the council's most recent survey, superintendent salaries among 56 urban school districts ranged from $157,000 to $329,000, with the highest pay in districts with 100,000 or more students.

The average for districts with enrollment under 50,000, like Anchorage, is $208,000, still more than $40,000 over what Comeau is paid.

Some comparative salaries for cities with districts about our size: The superintendent of Wichita, Kan., with 46,788 students for the 2009-2010 school year, was paid $232,000. Portland, Ore., with 46,262 students in its urban district, paid $190,000. Portland also has separate suburban districts.

Besides standing out for low pay, Comeau is unusual for having stayed in the superintendent's job for more than 10 years so far.

"She beat the national average three times over," Casserly said. The average superintendent is in and out in 3 1/2 years. She's the longest-term superintendent ever in Anchorage, according to district records going back to Orah Dee Clark in 1915, who lasted a year.

Why is that important?

"It's enormously valuable," said Casserly. "Research is pretty clear on this: These big school districts have a difficult time improving or sustaining improvement when they change their leadership every few years."

After looking at the salary numbers, School Board member Don Smith said, "We should be looking inside the district before we go Outside."

Smith, a long-term advocate of tax caps that keep a lid on government spending, thinks an Outsider might cost $250,000 to $300,000.

"That's what we're going to be looking at if we get one of the whiz kids in the Lower 48," he said.

Meanwhile, the district has two highly competent assistant superintendents, Smith said: Mike Abbott, in charge of support services like facilities and maintenance, and Ed Graff, the head of instruction.

"I think they'd both be good superintendents."

But many people, including Comeau herself, recommend looking nationally as well as locally.

"There's been a lot of change in education in the country," said Comeau. The district should at least look at those who are interested and see what kind of different experience they have, she said.

The School Board is planning a national search as well as considering Alaska applicants but is still working out details, said board president Gretchen Guess.

It won't negotiate pay and benefits until later in the process, she said.

Another board member, Jeff Friedman, said, "I'm sure we're going to have to pay a little more," but he didn't want to go into details before any negotiations with candidates. He said he didn't want to "send out too many signals about how much we're willing to pay."

The board is first discussing where it wants a new superintendent to focus, said Guess. "The board is committed to finding the best person to deliver educational and operational improvement and success."

Board member Pat Higgins said the district has gained some momentum in its attempts to increase student achievement and he'll continue to advocate for such efforts with a new superintendent.

For example, this fall the district will begin new testing to assess each student's language arts skills three times yearly. That will result in a better diagnosis of how each kid is doing, he said.

The board is also preparing to hire a firm to help with the search.

Anchorage's luck has varied in regard to how well superintendents have fared in the community. The three superintendents prior to Comeau all left amid controversy.

Her immediate predecessor, Bob Christal, led the district from 1992 to 2000 but resigned amid public uproar over his pay.

In his last year, he demanded either a $51,000 increase to his pay and benefits, up to $231,000, or to be allowed to manage the district as an independent contractor for $160,000, with retirement pay on the side.

The board agreed to the contract but the decision didn't sit well with the community. Christal resigned.

It's unclear what role, if any, the community will have in assessing superintendent candidates.

In past searches, the board has set up community and employee committees. But that can lead to hard feelings because the board must ultimately make the decision, said Sharon Richards, board member from 1988 to 1995, a period that saw four superintendents or acting superintendents.

She remembers a case when a committee wanted a candidate the board didn't support. "It's a tough one," she said.

Guess said if there are committees, the board will need to make sure that participants know "at the end of the day, it's our decision."

But people interviewed already have opinions on what kind of person the new superintendent should be.

"Someone with a very strong background in large school finances would be really important," said Anchorage Chamber of Commerce chairman Bill Evans.

He thinks the new superintendent should match Comeau's ability to relate to a wide variety of people.

He does not see the need for community committees: "The School Board is elected to represent the public."

Mayor Dan Sullivan, who is hosting an educational summit and follow-up discussions this fall and winter, said, "We would love to have somebody on board to embrace recommendations" coming out of that summit. "Somebody who has been an agent of change."

Bob Griffin, a conservative who ran for the School Board and lost but is now on the city's Budget Advisory Commission, said he agrees with the idea of a national search to see what candidates are out there: "It would be negligent to do otherwise."

"That said, there are a few serving currently in the ASD administration that would be choices I heartily support," including Abbott, chief financial officer Chad Stiteler and Graff, Griffin said.

"It's mostly a management and leadership job," said Griffin.

Richards said it will be important to find out how well superintendent candidates relate to the community and how much they value public input. "Because I think that was one of Carol's strengths. ... Public input and parent input. That can make or break them."

Reach Rosemary Shinohara at rshinohara@adn.com or 257-4340.


By ROSEMARY SHINOHARA
rshinohara@adn.com