Ken Hare In Depth: State superintendent's 25 percent pay hike di - WSFA.com Montgomery Alabama news.

Ken Hare In Depth: State superintendent's 25 percent pay hike distracts from improving schools

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

Alabama State Superintendent Tommy Bice deserves a contract extension. He also deserves a pay increase. But Bice told reporters he did not want his pay increase to distract from the improvements that Alabama schools are making.

Sorry, Dr. Bice, but that's exactly what has happened.

Anytime a state agency head is given a whopping 25 percent pay increase in one fell swoop, it's likely to be a distraction.

When that huge pay hike makes the salary of the state's top school administrator one of the highest in the nation for that position, it becomes inevitable that it will become a distraction.

If the state is one like Alabama that ranks near the bottom in per capita income and in academic performance, it's going to become more than a distraction -- it's going to raise hackles among many taxpayers and perhaps even some legislators when they vote on the education budget.

Last week the State Board of Education voted to give Bice a two-year extension on his contract and to increase his salary from $198,000 per year to $250,000 per year. Bice had requested a contract extension, but not a salary increase.

That increase puts Bice among the best-paid state superintendents of education in the nation.

According to the Council of State Governments 2013 salary survey, only three states at that time paid their top school administrators more than $250,000 per year. They were Mississippi at $307,125, and Florida and Louisiana at $275,000.

Of course, other states probably have raised the salaries of their superintendents as well since the CSG survey. But it's clear that Bice is now among the best-paid state superintendents in the nation.

That is always going to be a distraction in a state where combined state and local spending per student consistently ranks in the bottom 10 among the states.

When Bice goes to the Legislature next year to defend funding for public education, his salary increase could become an issue for some lawmakers. Already state Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Dothan, has told the news media that he believes the State Board of Education was wrong to grant such a large increase.

Every year when lawmakers draw up the state's education budget, they have to consider how much education revenue goes to teacher salaries and how much to other school operations -- training, maintenance, new reform programs, pre-kindergarten expansion, and so on. Such a large increase for Bice will certainly be used as a rallying cry by the teacher lobby for larger pay increases for educators. It also puts pressure on Bice to make teacher pay his top priority, and if he is not successful in getting a large increase for teachers, it could hurt his support among them.

Again, let me emphasize that I believe the contract extension was crucial to giving Bice the kind of job security necessary for him to make tough decisions that might not be popular ones. I also believe that Bice deserved a pay increase, but one more in line with what he will be seeking for teachers this coming year.

Bice should ask the state board to amend his contract to allow for the extension and a modest single-digit percentage increase in pay now, plus another increase in line with any teacher pay hike next year.

Bice certainly appears to be making inroads into improving public education in Alabama. Once measurable improvements are in place long enough to ensure they are sustainable, then Alabama taxpayers should not wince at having one of the nation's best-paid education administrators.

In other words, any state superintendent of education who can move Alabama's public education system into the top tier of systems in the nation deserves to be among the best paid.

But when we're in the bottom tier in most categories of academic performance, such a large increase is going to be a tough pill for many taxpayers to swallow.

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Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at khare@wsfa.com.

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