Charter administrators earn similar pay to CMS

Top officials at Charlotte-area charter schools reported compensation ranging from $60,000 to $115,360 a year, based on salaries publicly disclosed for the first time at the Observer’s request.

That’s in the same range as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools principals and well below the pay for top officials in a district that oversees 160 schools and a workforce of about 18,500 people. Superintendent Heath Morrison reported total compensation of just over $300,000 for the year that ended March 31 – a base salary of $288,000 and $12,694 in allowances and fringe benefits.

CMS pay traditionally receives public scrutiny during budget season, as county commissioners and state lawmakers decide how much to spend on public schools for the coming year. Salaries for charter schools, which are run by independent nonprofit boards that get public money, provide a glimpse of spending at a rapidly growing educational alternative.

But administrative salaries alone can’t answer the biggest question: whether charters or district schools provide the best educational value for taxpayer dollars. Because charter schools don’t report to a school district, their administrators assume duties that would fall to central offices in CMS.

Charter schools also tend to spend more of their budget on contracts for school support, which can range from management chains that oversee everything to companies that provide such services as bookkeeping, transportation or meals.

Last year, CMS spent 84 percent of its budget on salaries and benefits and 8 percent on purchased services, according to the state’s school report cards, while many area charters reported spending 20 percent or more on purchased services. Queens Grant, run by the Michigan-based National Heritage Academies, spent 53 percent of its budget on salaries and benefits and 41 percent on purchased services.

Administrative pay varies widely by school, among charters and district schools.

Size is often, but not always, a factor. Chris Terrill of Pine Lake Preparatory School, the area’s largest charter school with about 1,650 students, is the highest-paid charter leader at $115,360. Lauren Tucker at Aristotle Prep, a startup charter with just over 100 students, has the lowest salary at $60,000.

But Joy Warner, who heads the 1,300-student Community School of Davidson, makes just under $79,000 a year, while Antoinette Ellis makes $80,000 a year for leading the new Invest Collegiate charter school, which opened this year with just under 100 students.

Charters don’t receive public money for buildings. Warner said when the recession hit, her faculty took a vote on whether to shift money raised to build a high school into salaries, lay off employees or take pay cuts. They chose the cuts.

“It just doesn’t feel right for me to have some big whopping salary,” Warner said.

Invest Collegiate had planned to open in August with more than 500 K-6 students and add grades in coming years, a common pattern for charter schools. But the board couldn’t find a building and opened with a much smaller school in mobile classrooms. A building that will house the full enrollment is under construction on the southwest edge of uptown Charlotte.

Morrison has raised questions about the cost-effectiveness of small charters, which require a full administrative staff for fewer students than most CMS schools serve. But CMS also has a growing number of small opt-in schools that offer academic specialties.

For instance, Joey Burch made $136,670 for leading Cato Middle College High, with about 200 students and a staff of 15. Cato, which opened several years ago with 100 students, is considered a CMS success story.

The CMS principal scale starts at $67,018 (those listed in this year’s database at lower rates haven’t worked a full year).

Forty-nine of CMS’ 160 principals and 48 other CMS employees made more than $100,000 in the past year, including salary, bonuses, state longevity pay and any other compensation, according to the district’s 2014 salary list. Maureen Furr, who leads the 2,750-student South Mecklenburg High, is the highest-paid CMS principal at $165,558.

Charter employees are not eligible for longevity pay, which provides an annual payment of up to 4.5 percent of salary. For the most experienced and highest-paid CMS administrators, that comes to thousands of dollars. Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark, for instance, received $8,550 in longevity pay.

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