Ethical Educator

Salary Shortchange
School Administrator, August 2021

Scenario: A district’s chief financial officer is retiring. Given the position’s competitiveness and the difficulty of filling it, the school board increases the projected salary by $25,000, attracting several strong candidates. As the superintendent prepares to recommend the finalist, an economic downturn leaves the district facing budget cutbacks that may affect staff. The board, believing the position’s increased salary now will be viewed negatively by staff and community, requests the superintendent to reduce the offer substantially. Should the superintendent do so?

MaryEllen Elia:

Undoubtedly, one of the most important administrative staff positions in any district is that of the chief financial officer.

Superintendents need to be proactive in seeking candidates who are experienced and knowledgeable. Sometimes that requires an increase in salary to be competitive. It was smart of the superintendent to review salaries in like districts across the state and work with the school board prior to advertisements, interviews and selection of the finalist to obtain approval to offer an increased salary to the new hire.

However, as often happens, outside forces can require a “rethink.” When a district faces an economic crisis that is going to require budget cutbacks affecting staff, it is difficult to bring on a new district leader at a substantial increase in salary. 

I would come up with a compromise with the board to validate their concerns.  Options might include a much smaller increase with an agreement to readdress the CFO’s salary in a year or an agreed upon percentage increase in year 1, year 2 and year 3.  If the finalist doesn’t understand this need for a readjustment, I would go back and re-interview the other qualified candidates. The team culture of a district depends on leaders who understand this “all for all” or “shared sacrifice” perspective.

Shelley Berman:

Although it may seem reasonable to reduce the offer to allay anticipated ire from the staff and community, such action could undermine the search and the potential for securing the strongest candidate. The CFO position is one of the most critical positions in a school district and one of the hardest to fill. Offering a highly competitive salary doesn’t always guarantee that a district will secure well-qualified applicants, but it is a strong inducement for someone with skill and experience, especially one who may incur moving expenses.

Reneging on the advertised salary could cause candidates to withdraw, resulting in a failed search. It may also appear to be a “bait and switch” strategy, which could undermine candidates’ trust in the board and leadership and deter some from either accepting the offer or applying for a re-advertised position. 

While economic downturns are temporary, one’s starting salary tends to remain a permanent base for more modest yearly increases. The superintendent should advise the board to have the fortitude to defend the salary it committed to, given that the position is even more critical in difficult economic times—both to avoid errors that could cost more than the projected increase in salary as well as to make informed financial recommendations that may prevent layoffs of existing staff.

If the board is insistent about some accommodation in salary, the superintendent could offer to discuss the situation with the finalist and ask if there is a more modest salary that the individual could accept at this time. The superintendent could work with the board on a contract offer that builds the salary back to the original offer over a period of years plus the cost-of-living increases provided to other administrators. Demonstrating an overall commitment to the advertised salary and giving the finalist the respect and opportunity to discuss what may be an appropriate course could build confidence and secure a more dedicated and positive employee. 
Chris Nicastro:

This situation illustrates the importance of having salary structures and policies in place. The board of education has a role in determining salary structures and ranges and then approving a budget to fund them. Individual salaries within these ranges are generally at the discretion of the superintendent and are determined based on policy criteria.

While a published salary or range is not necessarily a guarantee of salary, it does communicate the intended terms of employment to prospective candidates. This determines to some extent the pool of candidates from which the superintendent can choose.  The superintendent should alert the candidate to the board's request, and if prepared to make a final recommendation, move forward under the published salary terms. The superintendent should explain to the board that applications had been received, interviews conducted, and a finalist selected prior to their request. If they refuse to honor the published salary, then the process would have to start over.   

The superintendent might want to review hiring and compensation policies with the board. The reputation of the district and its ability to attract and retain quality candidates depends to some extent on how this process is conducted.  

Louis Wool:

Do you take an action that you believe unfair unwise, or inappropriate because the board has asked you to do so?

On its face, the board’s directive seems reasonable. Changes must be made in an economic downturn. The board and the superintendent have an obligation to treat current employees fairly and be ever mindful of the actual and perceived impact of their decision-making on taxpayers. However, is the board’s directive to reduce the salary offer to the chief financial officer candidate a strategic financial decision or the more immediate concern about stakeholder discontent? 

The school board made a reasoned decision to increase the salary for the CFO position based on a lack of qualified candidates, the significance of the role and market competition. Having served as a superintendent for over 20 years, the value of a highly skilled, effective CFO is immeasurable. The job is tortuously difficult, requiring expertise in school finance and state law. The ability of a district to implement programs, maintain class sizes and sustain the confidence of its community is based on student outcomes and excellent fiscal management, and the two objectives are inextricably linked. The economic downturn notwithstanding, the obstacles the board identified for filling this critical position with a highly competent individual remain. 

If I were the superintendent given this directive, I would not execute it willingly. I would reframe the longer-term significance of an effective and highly qualified CFO. I would provide information and perspective to the board, bargaining units, and community about the long-term sustainability of programs and employees. Effectively managing taxpayer dollars and district viability are best achieved by hiring the most competent chief financial officer. 

How is reducing the salary by $25,000 in the best interest of the students, taxpayers and employees over the longer term? If the candidate rejects the position because the superintendent reduces the salary offer, what is the alternative? The limited candidate pool is likely more dire due to the economic downturn and high-qualified candidates in even greater demand. A less qualified candidate is an unwise choice, especially entering a financial crisis. 

The board’s ultimate responsibility is to ensure a safe environment, effective student programs, well-trained employees and prudent financial management. The superintendent's work in this ethical dilemma is to help the board "get to the balcony" and fully consider the more significant implications of their directive. 

The superintendent’s responsibility is to lead the messy, multidimensional engagement of the board, employees and taxpayers dissatisfied with the salary for a new CFO in a comprehensive analysis of the issue. It will be a difficult conversation. The board enters the discussion feeling their authority challenged, and employees start from feeling undervalued. The superintendent should thoroughly assess his own and the board’s relationships with employee groups, community stakeholders and each other. Are the relationships productive and rooted in refined levels of trust and communication? Engaging in a dispassionate analysis of this highly charged issue is more fraught lacking trust. Its absence would indicate more considerable organizational challenges. 

The conflict is an opportunity to grow organizational capacity and establish or strengthen the superintendent's role as leader of the district.  The issue offers a platform for a thoughtful, provocative exchange of important ideas and ideals. Suppose the analysis is compelling and the groups engaged. In that case, the outcome will most likely reveal whether urban or suburban, highly resourced or lacking resources, all public school districts benefit from competent, strategic financial management.

The one choice the superintendent should not accept is to follow the directive without question. He does a disservice to the board, children, employees and community in failing to thoroughly frame the significant issues that go unaddressed if the board demands a simplistic, politically motivated decision to quell criticism. A decision to simply follow the board’s directive undermines his effectiveness as leader of the organization.

Successful leadership should not be assessed by whether or not the board changes its mind, but rather is the organization better prepared to make more effective decisions going forward. Ultimately, the dilemma requires the superintendent to re-examine his purpose.  Superintendents often are torn by a false dichotomy of satisfying the board or leading the school district to benefit children. If his leadership is compelling, moral and courageous, he can likely do both. 
Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, AASA lead superintendent, Redmond, Ore.; MaryEllen Elia, senior fellow, International Center for Leadership in Education and retired superintendent; Chris Lee Nicastro, former Missouri commissioner of education and president, Lee Consulting Group, St. Louis, Mo.; and LOUIS N. WOOL, superintendent, Harrison, N.Y.