The recession has come and gone and so have pay freezes for teachers. For the most part, superintendents' salaries also are on the rise. Some people object because they say salaries of other staff aren't increasing in a similar manner, while others believe it's only fair.
"It's a very demanding job, and it's a market-based system. And that's the way it should be," said Bruce Caughey, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives. The professional organization for superintendents and other leaders in education has about 2,500 members statewide.
While government agencies often clamor for local control instead of big government wielding the power, local control can present challenges when it comes to superintendents' pay.
"The challenge is there is no consistency in how we set (the salary)," said Mary Thurman, deputy superintendent of personnel support services for Colorado Springs School District 11, the region's largest public school district.
The state does not provide guidelines for determining compensation for superintendents; that's the job of school districts' elected board members, to whom the superintendent reports.
"This state has a long tradition of the local board having significant authority over instructional programming in a district, and the superintendent leading that," Caughey said.
So base salaries and benefits are all over the board.
The median annual salary in Colorado Springs is $146,725, according to salary.com, not including bonuses, insurance, reimbursements and other compensation. That's about $1,600 below the national median.
But the range varies widely, starting as low as $80,000 at the Pikes Peak region's smallest school district, Edison 54-JT, to hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for leaders of larger districts.
Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8, the region's sixth largest district, hired former state department of education official Keith Owen last year as its superintendent, at a salary that rivals the area's top-paid. Owen's base salary is $225,000, which is $33,550 more than his predecessor Cheryl Serrano earned in 2014-2015.
Fountain-Fort Carson's five-member school board spent nearly a year working on finding a replacement for Serrano. After an exhaustive nationwide search that produced 27 candidates and a lengthy interview process, members unanimously selected Owen.
"We were looking for someone who was an educator and had experience and who would be the best fit for our district," said board president Suzanne Foster.
The board compared salaries of other superintendents in the region and took into account what Owen was making at the Colorado Department of Education, Foster said, No one objected to his salary, she said, adding that Owen has been worth the money.
"He was the best choice. He's dedicated, hard-working, committed, personable and has enrolled his children in our district," she said.
Bigger Districts, Bigger Money
Owen also has a doctorate degree, which is not required but is often recommended for those applying for the job and can factor into negotiating a higher salary.
Size matters, too. Superintendents presiding over a large student body and annual budget typically earn more than their counterparts in smaller districts, which also often have less money to spend on compensation.
Colorado Springs D-11's superintendent Nicholas Gledich oversees a total budget of about $371 million and receives a compensation package of about $263,500.
Mark Hatchell, the superintendent of Academy School District 20, the second largest in the region, is in charge of a $322 million budget and earns a base salary of about $225,150 plus insurance benefits.
"It's a very competitive environment, and school boards want to hire the best and brightest," Caughey said. "When you're dealing with a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars, you want someone competent to manage the district."
To help retain its superintendent, the board of Lewis-Palmer School District 38 in January unanimously approved a $20,000 pay boost for Karen Brofft, who is in her second year in the job. Her base salary was $148,000 last school year and $160,000 this year. It will jump to $180,000 in July under her new three-year contract.
D-38 Board President Mark Pfoff said the increase is justified. The district has had five superintendents in the past eight years (counting a former superintendent who returned twice to fill in as interim) and needed to sweeten the pot for Brofft to stay.
"We brought her in at an extremely low salary - so low that some people wouldn't apply - with the idea of in the future offering a salary that's more comparable to other districts and a multi-year contract," he said. "We may still lose her - even with the increase, neighboring districts are paying their superintendents considerably more."
It's also less than the 2009-2010 salary of $162,150 that D-38 paid its top official.
But some teachers in the Monument school district are upset because they were told in February that budget constraints due to state funding problems could reduce teachers' raises to 2 percent. Teachers received just over a 3 percent increase this school year but had salaries frozen or restricted for several years during the recession.
"This has led some to question the board's loyalty to its teachers," said a teacher who asked not to be named.
Pfoff said he understands the frustration but says Brofft is an "awesome administrator" and deserves the raise.
"If we want to retain a superintendent long-term, we've got to be competitive," he said. "For every percent we give teachers, it costs us an additional $250,000 per year. If we give a 4 percent raise, it's $1 million going forward. If we give the superintendent $20,000 more, it's $20,000."
Some superintendents' contracts are considered for renewal annually, others are multi-year. With the improving economy, many are making more money than in the past, including D-11's Gledich, who is getting about $6,500 more this year than last year, and D-20's Hatchell, whose salary increased by nearly $6,000 this school year over last.
Contracts range from fairly basic to complex, involving retirement payments, severance deals, provided cell phones and laptops, and other terms.
Some superintendents are entitled to thousands of dollars worth of bonuses based on their performance, including Andre Spencer, superintendent of Harrison School District 2.
Ed Longfield, superintendent of Manitou Springs School District 14, received a 4 percent raise in December, like other district employees, following voter approval of a mill levy override in November.
Walt Cooper, superintendent of Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, got a longevity bonus of $7,417 for staying in the job this year. But he voluntarily froze his pay during the recession, saying he thought it was the "right thing to do," in light of deep financial cuts the district had to make, including closing a school.
Top Jobs Paying Less
Whether it's continued fallout from the recession or another reason, some top school bosses are being paid less than previous superintendents.
Falcon School District 49 changed its structure in 2011 from a superintendent model to a three-person team management approach. Peter Hilts, the chief education officer, earns a base salary of $145,400, compared with the superintendent's $180,000 base salary in 2009-2010.
"More decisions are made at the schools and in the classrooms, so we're empowering the local educators to determine student needs," said D-49 spokesman Matt Meister.
The district also saves money, Meister said, by eliminating the traditional superintendent position and having three chief officers, over education, business and operations.
Colorado's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights author Douglas Bruce has been a longtime critic of school funding. Following a January rally at the Capitol at which superintendents called for more state funding for public education, Bruce, in an email, called superintendents' salaries overinflated.
Caughey said working as a school superintendent is like being a CEO of a corporation.
"The demands are very similar," he said. "People sometimes forget this isn't a 9-to-5 kind of job. Superintendents serve their community, live in their community and are always 'on.' Even when they go to the grocery store, they're seen as the superintendent."