Tuesday, October 15, 2013

School Board Needs to Think Outside the Box

This maven gave out a little gasp when I read this in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch: “Next schools chief to get more pay.” 1 My gasp turned to a moan when I read the sub-headline, “Richmond School Board sets minimum salary of $225,000.” Now, don’t get me wrong. As a taxpayer I am not opposed to paying people what they are worth. But, it seems that our beloved Richmond Nine are agreeing to a minimum salary that is $47,000 more than we paid our last superintendent. That is an increase of 26%. I am wondering how many home runs or what kind of low ERA would justify a 26% pay increase in the free agent market. But, what do I know of the market for urban school chiefs?

However, I am a bit disappointed that the board so easily agreed to the recommendation of their hired recruiting consultant that the new superintendent’s salary must begin with a 2. Isn’t this the school board that was so upset at the interim superintendent’s recent performance improvement plan because it wasn’t visionary and called for nothing new? Why isn’t this board willing to think outside the box when it comes to setting the compensation of its next superintendent?

A story: During my last summer in law school I worked as a legal intern for NASA. This was 1969, and I was fortunate to be with NASA during the summer of the first moon landing. But, I did do some work and I also learned some history. I learned that after the Soviets got a big first step in the space race, NASA was created with an implicit mission statement that failure was not acceptable. So, NASA rejected the traditional Department of Defense contracting model under which contractors received the same compensation regardless of how well they performed. Instead they adopted an incentive contracting model under which a contractor’s compensation depended on how well it did its job.

For example, if a contractor was hired to build a third-stage rocket to be completed by, let’s say, December 31, 1962, the contract set a base compensation for the contractor building the rocket. However, if the contractor delivered it before the target date it earned an incentive bonus. On the other hand, if it missed the target date it suffered a penalty. Likewise, if the rocket performed flawlessly the contractor earned another bonus. However, if it did not perform flawlessly the contractor suffered a penalty. Incentive contracting gave contractors a strong stake in the success of whatever NASA program they were working on.

What if, instead of simply setting the new superintendent’s salary at some figure beginning with a 2, the board insisted on a contract in which the superintendent’s compensation depended on how well s/he did the job? Why not a contract that sets a base salary but provides for bonuses if the superintendent successfully moves RPS toward greatness and penalties if the school system does not improve? I am sure that the board and a superintendent can reach agreement measures, based perhaps on the Objectives of the 2010-2015 RPS Strategic Plan. Using this kind of incentive contracting would make the next superintendent more than just an employee. He or she would be a partner in this city’s mission of creating a first rate school system for our children. 

But, you may ask, what if a candidate doesn’t want to work under a contract where compensation is based on how well he or she does the job? I reply with a question. Do we want a superintendent who is not so sure of success that she or he is willing to agree to an incentive contract?


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