How much is a school district superintendent worth?
District leader’s role continues to evolve

By Katherine Michalets - Special to The Freeman

November 28, 2013

SUSSEX - Superintendents are often behind the scenes advocating for students, setting education standards and maintaining a safe learning environment. What was once largely a managerial position has evolved to be more focused on the learning process. And compensation for superintendents has a broad range across the more than a dozen districts in Waukesha County.

Hamilton’s Kathleen Cooke earned $172,564 during the 2012-13 school year, the highest in the county. She also had $78,126 in fringe benefits. Mark Lichte, superintendent of the Lake Country District, made $62,695 in salary and $19,761 in fringe benefits, the lowest county-wide. He also works as the Lake Country School principal, which earns him another $62,695 in salary and $19,761 in fringe benefits.

At the top

Cooke is in her 21st year as superintendent of the Hamilton School District, and according to Hamilton Public Information Coordinator Denise Dorn Lindberg, Cooke has the most longevity of any superintendent in the county.

Cooke will receive a 1 percent pay increase in the 2013-14 district budget. Included in the fringe benefits are health and dental insurance, long-term disability, paid time off, retirement contributions and use of a district vehicle. She is able to be reimbursed for up to eight days of unused paid time off, Dorn Lindberg said.

The district has 4,661 students that attend one high school, one middle school and four elementary schools.

“It is well documented that the quality of schools influences the desirability of a community and its property values,” Dorn Lindberg answered on Cooke’s behalf. “It also helps the business community attract and retain a high quality workforce. Leadership is important in setting direction for a school district.”

Dorn Lindberg said the Hamilton district’s success can be measured partly by this year’s School Report Card. The district was one of two Wisconsin K-12 school districts that earned the top rating of “significantly exceeds expectations,” she said.

“In Hamilton, like most school districts, the school board sets the vision for the district and the administration is charged with bringing that vision to life. In the past 15 years, the Hamilton School District has transformed from a district in significant academic distress to being one of the highest achieving, yet lowest spending districts in the region,” Dorn Lindberg said in an email.


What a superintendent does

Many parents and students may be most familiar with the principal or teachers at their school, but the superintendent is also helping to shape how students learn by setting the district’s tone.

JoAnn Sternke, superintendent of the Pewaukee School District, said the district’s mission is “to open the door to each child’s future.”

“My role as a superintendent is to serve our community by providing a high quality education to our students, one that open doors for them,” she said in an email.

Sternke has been with the district for a little more than a decade and has 30 years of total experience, according to the Department of Public Instruction. For the 2012-13 school year, Sternke’s salary was $156,189 and she had $58,649 in fringe benefits, which included family health and dental insurance, life insurance, long-term disability and retirement benefits. Her salary, which has already been approved by the School Board, will be $165,500 for the 2013-14 school year.

Sternke’s contract also allows for up to 10 unused vacation days to be paid at a rate of half her daily pay.

She oversees one high school, one middle school and two elementary schools, which are attended by 2,791 students.

“In the Pewaukee School District we graduate close to 100 percent of our students and send over 90 percent on to a two- or four-year college.  Good schools are the foundation for strong communities. I am very proud of what I do, the terrific people with whom I work, and the wonderful community in which I live and work,” Sternke said in an email.


Changing role

The role of superintendent has evolved over the years to include more of a focus on reforming the education system. Elmbrook Superintendent Mark Hansen often discusses issues related to education with legislators. Pat Deklotz, superintendent of the Kettle Moraine School District, also believes it’s her responsibility as an education professional to “advocate for responsible education policy.”

“The superintendent’s role has changed significantly from 25 years ago. Superintendents are now expected to lead the transformation and reform of our education system,” Deklotz said in an email.

“It has evolved from a management responsibility of maintaining the status quo to a leadership responsibility of implementing innovation and improvement. Twenty-five years ago there were minimal concerns about school safety, parental support, or the use of technology and the Internet.”

Deklotz said education policy can have long-lasting effects on communities.

“It is the role of an education leader to understand implications and to bring to light potential consequences. The theory and research behind education policy should be transparent and deserve informed debate,” she said.


The challenges of Act 10

Todd Gray, superintendent of the School District of Waukesha, has often been vocal about education policies and government bills and their possible positive and negative effects on his district. He said Act 10 has resulted in a different approach of how to lead a school district “in order to deal with much of the issues and challenges of managing essentially a free-market, non-union professional workforce.”

“In some aspects this is very challenging and in other aspects it is very rewarding,” Gray said in an email of Act 10. “Very recently there has become much greater accountability both at the school level, district level and soon at the teacher level, in terms of student achievement.  I feel the student achievement challenges are much broader and tougher than the financial challenges we have faced in recent years.”

Whether a superintendent advocates for his or her district depends on the situation and approach, Gray said. If the issues at hand directly affect the district’s students, resources and personnel, he believes he must go to bat on various levels to protect the district’s hard work.

“My preference is to maintain good personal relationships with our area legislators, sometimes acting as an information provider, sometimes as an advocate for improving (or defeating) certain laws that impact us, but mostly having the ability to have serious one-to-one discussions with these legislators about what is working and what is not,” Gray said.

“Our Waukesha area legislators in both the Assembly and Senate have been very good to work with and very approachable when advocating for the district.  I have found that approach to be the most successful in advocating for SDW.”

Gray, who oversees three high schools, three middle schools, 13 elementary schools and two STEM schools, received a salary of $159,574 for the 2012-13 school year and $38,765 in fringe benefits, which includes health insurance, dental insurance, retirement benefits, FICA/Medicare and group term life. Gray, who has 36 years of total experience, according to the DPI, is also able to turn in up to 10 unused vacation days for reimbursement.

Deklotz, who has 19 years of superintendent experience, earned a salary of $156,791 in 2012-13 and $37,982 in total fringe benefits.  She oversees the education of 4,109 students in four elementary schools, one middle school and one high school.

“The role of the superintendent is defined by the local Board of Education. Expectations vary by district. My board has charged me to transform the educational delivery system to better and more efficiently meet the needs of all students,” Deklotz said.

“That is accomplished by hiring and retaining the best and brightest staff; providing clear vision supported by coherent strategic planning; and creating a collaborative culture that values distributed leadership, monitors both improvement and innovation, welcomes accountability and provides transparency.”

Waukesha County superintendents who earned the most in 2012-13

Kathleen Cooke

Mark Hansen

Craig Jefson

Paul Strobel*

Todd Gray

*Paul Strobel is no longer with the district

Source: Department of Public Instruction