The math on public school payrolls isn’t as simple as 1,2,3


In Texas, as in many other states, when the talk is of teacher pay, it’s often about how little they make, how many of them must work a second job to pay the bills. Which is why, apparently, Texas sets a minimum pay figure for teachers.

With school administrators and non-teaching professionals, the conversation is more likely to be about how high their salaries, or extra benefits, or severance packages are.  There’s no need to set required minimums. 

For school districts, the most important conversations are usually not about individual salary highs and lows, but more about the big picture: how much will they need to pay teachers to attract them to isolated or low-performing schools, and what will they really get for shelling out more than usual for a superintendent or a principal.

HB3, the omnibus education finance bill passed this year, requires districts to increase teacher pay. Its impact on teacher recruitment and overall finances of Texas school districts isn’t clear yet.  But the real question is whether higher pay – and an overall increase in education spending – will influence the quality of education available in Texas schools. 

While national school performance rankings are notoriously convoluted and sometimes controversial, Texas ranked 33rd on one list, which claimed to use data from U.S. News & World Report, for education performance last year. A study from Education Week, an industry newsgroup, gave Texas a ‘C-minus’ grade, slightly lower than the nationwide ‘C’.

For now, the effects of extra spending on personnel are hard to track in Texas schools, especially since the picture is frequently skewed by extravagant salaries, benefits, and severance payments to superintendents.

Public school teachers in Texas with five years of experience must be paid a minimum of $46,656 a year. Despite the passion and long hours that teachers put into their work, their positions are still seen by many as entry-level jobs for ambitious professional educators. As a result, even veteran teachers have a hard time reaching higher levels of pay.

According to public records data for 2017, assembled by the research group Open the Books, 1,713 public and charter school principals in Texas made more than $100,000. Meanwhile, 407 teachers statewide made six figures.

The average pay for school counselors in 2017 was $64,000, while the average principal salary was $93,293.  In the 2018-19 school year, according to Texas Education Agency data, the average salary for teachers was $54,122. The median individual income in Texas is $59,206.

While big-city districts are the most top-heavy with better-paid employees, smaller districts sometimes pay salaries that make their employees among the top earners in town.

The West Oso school district southwest of Corpus Christi enrolled 2,100 students in 2017 and paid its director of assessment $175,620.

Four other small districts – Vidor, Liberty, Littlefield and Gregory-Portland — with 1,300 to 4,700 students, each paid $100,000-plus salaries to a half dozen people or fewer. None paid that much to a teacher. The employees who did make that much included a director of maintenance and at least three athletic directors.

“We pay based on market value for schools our size in our region,” Vidor Superintendent Jay Killgo said in an email.

Salaries aren’t always the whole story. Small districts like Vidor often have a harder time attracting and retaining employees. And each school district has a different approach and different student body composition. Higher numbers of at-risk students, who typically need specialized attention, can create a need for higher-paid positions, for instance. 

“The amount paid may be what they need to keep key people,” said Michael Lee, former superintendent at the Booker school district in North Texas and currently executive director of the Texas Association of Rural Schools. “Every school district will have a different answer as to why they pay what. This is an area that is watched very closely. You have to keep that payroll within the income that students generate.”

In larger districts, the highest teacher pay generally goes to the most experienced educators, while the higher administrative salaries, after the superintendent, go to the holders of other big titles such as chief financial officer, jobs that require more education and training.

Most districts, both charter and public, do seem to keep a firm hand on finances, but the exceptions can make it hard for other school boards to keep public support.

Like Grand Prairie, where the superintendent spent $160,000 in public money on renovations to a district-owned home she lived in, or the charter school monolith that pays to fly its chief financial officer to and from his Los Angeles home, or the millions handed out in severance payments to fired superintendents in various districts. 

Then there’s the Katy school district, which paid a $750,000 severance to Superintendent Lance Hindt, who resigned last year amid allegations of plagiarism and bullying. According to records, Katy also employed Peter McElwain for 19 years as an architect at an annual salary of $177,795. The district even paid his full salary for 2017, although he retired in January of that year, according to state records.

 A Katy spokeswoman did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Clear Creek is the 29th largest district in the state, with 42,000 students and including six high schools and 26 elementary schools. Officials of the Galveston County district said it pays 99 employees salaries over six figures; according to state data, the figure is 281. 

“We submitted incorrect data to the TEA,” said Clear Creek finance director Jeff Kohlenberg. “There was a glitch that was not caught.”

Regardless, the district has increased its administrative ranks, according to a bond disclosure statement this year.

Enrollment since 2015 has grown by four percent, according to the document, and the number of administrators, support staff and education aides has grown by 10 percent. But the number of teachers on the payroll has remained the same.

Kohlenberg said the increase in administrators was driven by the opening of new schools, which take more employees. He added that being in the Houston market drives up personnel costs. 

“We’re trying to be competitive at every level,” he said. School principals, he said, are in demand and good ones can be expensive.

“But we do the same thing with bus drivers and mechanics. You can’t always meet the market, but you want to be competitive. It makes for better results.”

The results, for Clear Creek and Katy, appear to support his theory. Both Clear Creek and Katy received ‘A’ grades from the state under Texas’s A-F accountability system.

Austin, similar in size to Katy and with 113 employees receiving six-figure salaries, earned a ‘B’ grade. The Killeen district, with an enrollment like Clear Creek’s, has 37 six-figure employees and received a ‘C’ grade from the state.

“There is no right way to spend money, no recipe like ‘If you spend money this will be the good outcome,’ ” said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab, a Georgetown University research center that studies financial practices in education. “If a school can get good outcomes by spending in a way, then that might be the right way.” 

Lawmakers have tried to give school districts leeway in deciding how to spend money, but the mandates of state and federal programs reduce that flexibility.  Districts must follow an accountability manual that is 205 pages long and includes special education instruction requirements and testing and curriculum rules.

“Every district has limited funds,” said Amy Campbell, director of human resources services at the Texas Association of School Boards. She advises districts on pay scale and structure. “Salary and benefits were 75 percent of a district’s budget a few years ago, and now they are more like 85 percent,” she said. 

Consistently poor-performing schools and districts now face state takeover.

“Outcomes by school will include the question of ‘What are we getting?’” Roza, of Edunomics, said. She said one district that is heavy on administrators may have better test scores than a pared-down district of similar size. 

“We might think that this is the way to do it, the heavy administrative size,” she said. “Or, it can also be the other way around. There is a saying that money spent on administrators is not spent on students and is not worth it. But that is not always a predictor of poor grades.”

Remember the harried assistant principal who chased truants and bad actors around the school? At an average salary of $73,000, those jobs may not look as good to candidates as they once did.

“Now, with the increase in teacher pay through HB3, there is concern that those teachers who in the past were more likely to move on to become, say, an assistant principal, [are] less likely to do so when the pay isn’t all that much different,” said Joy Baskin, director of legal services at TASB. 

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].


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