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$275,000 for 3 administrators at 1 small charter school: Too much?

At Stewart Creek High, a new charter school on Freedom Drive, three administrators make a total of $275,000 a year.
At Stewart Creek High, a new charter school on Freedom Drive, three administrators make a total of $275,000 a year. ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

Consider two charter schools that opened in Charlotte this year with about 100 students each. One has three school administrators with salaries totaling $275,000. The other has two, with combined annual pay of $70,000.

Can we conclude that one of them is spending too much on administration?

Salaries provided as part of the Observer’s recent public records request show major variations in administrative pay, especially at small start-up charter schools. But making direct comparisons, let alone determining what’s appropriate, is trickier than you might think.

Stewart Creek High and Veritas Community School provide a case study in why that is so.

“I don’t know of a rule of thumb,” says Katy Ridnouer, founder and head of school at Veritas. She decided to split her budgeted salary with an office manager – Ridnouer makes $30,000 a year and the office manager $40,000 – but says she can do that because her husband supports the family.

Thomas Hanley, executive principal at Stewart Creek High, makes $120,000 a year, with a principal in training at $95,000 and an assistant principal at $60,000. Since opening, the charter high school has grown to 258 students, and Hanley also oversees another small charter high school run by the same for-profit chain.

Hanley’s pay is high compared with all but the largest Charlotte-area charter schools, which have more than 1,000 students. But it’s below that of principals at three Charlotte-Mecklenburg high schools with fewer than 200 students: Joey Burch at Levine Middle College High (just over $132,000), Will Leach at UNC Epic Early College High, and Alicisia Johnson at Cato Middle College High (both just under $121,000).

Those principals don’t have assistants, but can tap into a massive district support structure that includes 58 people making six-figure salaries. That’s one thing that makes comparisons between district and charter schools tricky; duties that have to be handled by school staff in charters can be picked up by central offices in districts.

Opportunity for innovation

Administrative pay is one of the thorniest subjects in education finance.

Critics of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have long questioned the number of employees working in central offices and the salaries paid to those at the top. Superintendent Ann Clark is the highest paid at $265,000 a year.

The latest payroll listing shows 2,767 CMS employees, or about 15 percent of the work force, who don’t work in schools. Their jobs include driving buses, maintaining buildings, making the technology work, hiring and firing employees, monitoring data, overseeing schools and providing support for teachers.

By allowing charter schools to operate outside that structure, the state hopes to tap innovation that benefits kids and taxpayers.

Titles and job descriptions for charter school leaders vary.

When a nonprofit board applies for a charter it gives the state a budget that includes anticipated enrollment, jobs and salaries. After the charter is granted, the students enroll and the public money starts coming in, many adjust their budgets.

There are no rules or guidelines on what administrators should make, state officials say.

“It really is up to the (charter school’s) board,” said Cheryl Turner, a longtime Charlotte charter school head who serves on the state’s Charter School Advisory Board. “It’s not just how many kids you have.”

Management-chain model

Stewart Creek, located in a Freedom Drive shopping center, is designed to serve dropouts and at-risk teens. It’s run by Accelerated Learning Solutions, a for-profit management company that used its Orlando schools as a model for two in Charlotte.

The first, Commonwealth High on Central Avenue, opened in 2014. Stewart Creek followed in 2015.

Stewart Creek’s application called for opening with 224 students and growing to 600 by its third year. It listed a principal at $88,000 and an assistant principal at $56,000. The application also noted that at existing ALS schools, “charter boards pay a management fee ranging from 11 percent to 97 percent of revenues, depending upon the proportion of expenses that are the direct responsibility of the management company.”

In spring 2015, the Observer reviewed management fees for the area’s charter schools. ALS charged 19 percent for Commonwealth, the highest among Charlotte-area schools.

Stewart Creek opened in August with fewer than half the expected students, but it has grown to 258 as area high schools have referred struggling students, said Hanley, who responded to questions by email. He said his duties include oversight of Stewart Creek and Commonwealth, as well as representing ALS in Raleigh.

Turner, who reviewed the application as part of her advisory board work, elaborated on the arrangement: During the start-up years, she said, a company like ALS “is pretty much putting up the money” and pays the administrators. “They don’t have to live off the (public) money they’ve got,” Turner said.

Stewart Creek’s budget shows the school getting $1.8 million in public money this year, with ALS contributing $160,000.

The salaries provided to the Observer show Stewart Creek and Commonwealth combined have five administrators earning a total of $432,000, or 30 percent of the total salaries for the schools’ 29 full-time employees.

Local management, lower pay

In contrast, Ridnouer and her office manager account for 13 percent of the total pay for 15 Veritas employees.

Ridnouer, a CMS parent, created the vision for an elementary school that incorporates exercise and healthy eating into its academic program. She chaired the board that pitched the charter, then handed off that title to become head of school.

Like Stewart Creek, Veritas hoped to open with 200 students. The application called for hiring a school director at $63,000 a year, a principal at $58,000 and a finance officer at $40,000.

But Veritas struggled with finding a building. With uncertainty during sign-up season, enrollment came in at about 100. The board hired lawyers as it wrangled with CMS over a lease for the former Villa Heights school, and the charter board continues to dispute the district’s reimbursement for renovations to that site.

Ridnouer says she raised more than $1 million in start-up grants. Veritas contracts with Acadia Northstar to handle financial services and record-keeping, and is affiliated with the nonprofit Challenge Foundation, which supports a national network of charter schools.

But the bottom line was that Ridnouer was faced with running the school by herself or splitting one full-time salary between two full-time people. That means Ridnouer makes half as much as her highest-paid employee, a physical education teacher who earns $60,000 a year and oversees the fitness and wellness program.

She is not, however, the area’s lowest-paid head of a charter school. That distinction falls to Erin McDonald, making $22,000 as director of Pioneer Springs Community School. And yes, it’s a full-time job, according to the school’s finance officer.

Veritas has now settled into the CMS Tryon Hills building in north Charlotte and hopes to get close to 200 students next year, Ridnouer says.

Too much? Too little?

As usual, I’ve concluded that the latest round of data offers more questions than answers.

Given the wide variety in duties, titles and the balance of staffing vs. outsourcing in charter schools, I couldn’t figure out a formula that would accurately compare how much schools spend on administration. But I still think it makes sense to look at the numbers and ask the questions.

Turner, who runs Sugar Creek Charter School, said she and other leaders of large schools have scrutinized the charter and CMS salaries in hopes of getting a better grasp of what’s fair and comparable. They, too, came away confused.

“It’s a complicated mess,” she said, laughing, “but it’s the game we play.”

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