Over the past five years, as most educators and other state employees saw wages stagnate, Central Piedmont Community College President Tony Zeiss pay rose by more than $59,000 and now totals $336,760 a year.
The increases came after state legislators eliminated a cap on the county money trustees could use to boost what the state pays community college presidents.
That allowed Zeiss to get a significant pay increase in 2010, when trustees raised his pay by $40,600. In a move that would boost his pension, it also converted a $45,000 housing allowance to salary.
Zeiss has received another $18,500 in raises in the years since.
Mecklenburg County now contributes more than $115,000 a year to Zeiss wages, while college revenue adds another $40,000. The rest comes from the state.
Trustees who approved the raises say theyre trying to reward and retain a leader who has helped the college grow and built a national reputation for training workers and bringing jobs to Charlotte.
Not only the college but the community has benefited from his presence, said Ralph Pitts, chairman of the CPCC Board of Trustees, who was also chair in 2010 when the pay cap was lifted. I dont think we pay him what hes worth.
Zeiss said the increases have helped keep him at CPCC when he has gotten competing offers, including one that would have paid about $750,000 from a private education organization in Dallas. Although a community college cant match that, he said, the increased pay and pension helped.
I love Charlotte and I love Central Piedmont, and my wife loves it, Zeiss said. Im happy that I have a board that appreciates what Ive been able to do.
Turning benefits into pay, a tactic used by at least four N.C. community colleges with presidents nearing retirement age, boosts their state pension, which is calculated based on the average of an employees four highest consecutive years of salary.
Zeiss, 67, has announced no plans to retire. If he were to leave in 2015, his annual pension would come to about $139,500. Thats about $19,000 a year more than he would have gotten if hed kept the housing allowance instead of having the money switched to salary.
Zeiss 2010 raise was awarded during the depths of the recession, when faculty members got $600 raises and budget cuts forced CPCC to turn away students, increase class sizes, and cut construction and maintenance staffs.
During those years, Zeiss campaigned vigorously for more state and county money to hire faculty and increase classroom space to keep up with growing demand. He said he fought hard to make sure CPCC staff members got raises every year, even if they were small.
There was no public debate over Zeiss pay because CPCC, like many community colleges, draws little public scrutiny. Discussions about pay raises are considered a personnel matter and conducted in closed session.
In contrast, executive pay and other spending decisions by CMS, Mecklenburg County and the city of Charlotte are regularly reported, analyzed and debated.
A community icon
CPCC and its longtime leader enjoy strong support in the Charlotte area. On Nov. 5, voters approved a record $210 million in construction bonds for the community college by a 72 percent to 28 percent margin.
Since Zeiss took the helm almost 21 years ago, CPCC has expanded from one campus near uptown to six around Mecklenburg County. The annual budget has almost quadrupled, and the school had 58,850 students last year, making it the second-largest community college in North Carolina.
Thousands more at CPCC take GED classes, learn to speak English or take corporate training, often developed to meet needs of employers. The college has raised more than $25 million from corporations, alumni and other donors to mark its 50th anniversary one of the largest fundraising campaigns done by a community college, according to CPCC.
There is no public entity in Charlotte that is more clearly aligned to the workforce development needs than Central Piedmont, said Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan. Morgan said he would not comment on Zeiss pay, but he noted that Zeiss is one of the best community college presidents anywhere in the United States.
Zeiss was named the national community college president of the year in 2004 and has chaired the American Association of Community Colleges and the League for Innovation in the Community College, an international community college group.
Pay cap lifted
For most of Zeiss tenure, the state capped the salary for community college presidents. Once he hit the cap, he could get raises only when the N.C. Community College Board of Trustees increased the limit.
In 2009, the last year of the pay cap, Zeiss made $227,532 in salary, with another $5,119 in state longevity pay. Executive Vice President Kathy Drumm, who has worked for CPCC since 1984 and didnt fall under the cap, made almost $29,000 more than Zeiss that year.
The board used the housing allowance in part to get around the pay limit, although Pitts said it was also provided because Zeiss is expected to entertain. Pitts, a Belk executive who has served on the CPCC board since 1998, said the N.C. Association of Community College Trustees lobbied to get rid of the salary cap. The state legislature did so in 2010, with little opposition. The state board still limits state pay, but each colleges trustees are free to add to that with county money or other college revenue.
Decisions about Zeiss compensation are made by the CPCC board, with four members appointed by the governor, four by Mecklenburg County commissioners and four by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board. The Raleigh News & Observer requested minutes of the 2010 closed meeting where that board decided to convert the allowance and award the additional raise. CPCC declined to provide them, saying it was a personnel matter, which is confidential under N.C. law. But the board could provide the records if it chose to under a provision in the personnel law that allows such records to be released to protect the integrity of the institution.
Zeiss current salary of $336,760 a year breaks down this way: $170,452 in state salary; $10,600 in state longevity pay; $115,722 from the county; and $39,986 from CPCC revenue.
Zeiss contract also allows him to accrue days toward a paid sabbatical. As of 2011, he had accrued at least 240 days, according to the contract. They will be paid upon retirement if he does not use them.
Hard to compare pay
CPCC leaders say their decisions about Zeiss pay are based on studies of compensation at other large, innovative community colleges around the country.
You have to look at him relative to his national peers because he is a national figure, Pitts said. He said Zeiss has gotten very serious, significant offers, not only from other colleges but from private-sector employers.
However, CPCC declined to provide any of the salary studies used to determine Zeiss pay. On the advice of counsel, we choose to not provide this information, spokesman Jeff Lowrance said. Compensation studies are part of personnel files, and personnel files are not subject to inspection under the public records law.
The ever-changing menu of benefits and pay offered to college leaders and other educational executives makes it difficult to draw direct comparisons.
For instance, Zeiss $326,160 base salary is about 31 percent higher than that of Stephen Scott, president of the larger Wake Technical Community College. But Scotts benefits, including a $45,815 annual housing allowance, push his total compensation package past Zeiss. Scott says he hopes to get that allowance and other benefits converted to pay when he nears retirement.
Ron Wainwright Jr., a Wake Tech board member who leads that colleges compensation subcommittee, says even he struggled to make a good comparison. He said the N.C. community college system hasnt compiled information on total pay in eight years.
Zeiss has a bigger salary than UNC Charlotte Chancellor Phil Dubois ($324,450) and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison ($288,000). But Dubois and Morrison, who run publicly funded educational institutions that are much larger than CPCC, also have add-ons that bump up their total. Dubois gets an on-campus house, while Morrison is eligible for an annual performance bonus up to 10 percent of his salary. Both get deferred retirement contributions.
A check of the nations five largest community colleges suggests that Zeiss pay is competitive, though CPCC is smaller.
A database kept by the National Center for Education Statistics lists CPCCs more than 58,000 students at the equivalent of 19,500 full-time students. According to that database, Zeiss $326,160 base salary tops that for two of the nations five largest community colleges. The president of Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, with almost 52,000 students enrolled, is listed as earning $301,550, while the president of Houston Community College, with about 58,500 students, is listed at $255,687. However, it is not clear what additional benefits they get, or whether their states provide anything like the N.C. longevity pay supplement, which adds $10,600 to Zeiss base salary.
The American Association of Community Colleges reported that the 2012 median salary for presidents of schools with at least 12,500 full-time students was $215,000, with median total pay at $226,800.
George Wightman, president of the CPCC Senate and chairman of the construction management department, said Zeiss pay hasnt been an issue on campus.
I have not a clue what Dr. Zeiss is paid, he said. Its not anything in my pay grade or anything I need to know. The trustees take care of that.
Wightman said Zeiss is highly regarded for his effectiveness at fundraising and helping CPCC grow. Obviously hes done things right, Wightman said. If they compensate him accordingly, thats fair.
Most CPCC classes are taught by part-time instructors who earn $1,900 for each three-credit-hour class.
CPCC lists 354 full-time instructors on a recent salary database, with 10-month pay ranging from $38,688 to $96,280.
Raises for full-time faculty members have been modest during the recession. They got $600 annual increases in 2009-10 and 2010-11, with an additional $300 one-time salary supplement in 2010-11. In 2011-12, CPCC used county and other institutional money to provide 2 percent raises, capped at $2,000.
Lowrance says CPCC tries to be competitive on faculty pay. He said CPCCs average 10-month salary for 2013 is $59,036, compared with a state average of $52,716. The college certainly is trying to attract the best instructors, he said.
Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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