The new superintendent of Arizona's largest school district will earn $26,000 more than his predecessor at a time when Mesa's public schools are facing economic challenges unlike what many have seen before.
Declining enrollment. Loss of state funding. Possible staff cuts.
Debra Duvall, the retiring superintendent of Mesa Unified School District, said that is precisely why her successor, Mike Cowan, should be paid more.
"Our contracts are exactly the same, except his has a few more dollars," Duvall said. "For the time, the skills and efforts he has to give ... he's still underpaid."
Duvall's base salary was $154,000 in her latest contract, which will expire when she retires June 30.
But Cowan's higher base salary of $180,000 won't make him the highest paid superintendent in the East Valley, even though he will be managing more schools, staff and students than any other superintendent in the area. Mesa Unified enrolls nearly 69,000 students, and with a staff of more than 10,000, is the largest employer in the city.
Scottsdale Unified School District - with about 26,000 students - plans to pay its new superintendent $195,000 annually.
Kirk Hinsey, president of the Mesa Education Association, said Cowan should be paid a fair market value given the size and issues the district faces.
But he also hopes the governing board will take that same consideration when it addresses staff salaries for next year.
"I understand the board's position for the fair market value, but from my point of view, I hope they respect that when it comes time to address salaries for teachers as well as the support professionals," Hinsey said.
Cowan is the district's associate superintendent, a job he has held since 2004. He is well into the planning and discussions taking place on how to handle a possible $70 million cut to the district's $400 million operating budget.
The Mesa district and others across the state are facing tough financial decisions in light of a $3.3 billion budget shortfall. Already this year, the district lost nearly $10 million from its budget. Next year's shortfall could be between $30 million and $70 million.
To address that budget loss - impacted by an expected 2,000-student enrollment drop - Mesa is looking at staff cuts. The district already put textbook purchases on hold and delayed buying computers. This school year, it started with two assistant superintendent positions instead of three.
Cowan's three-year contract - like those of his peers - includes membership in the state superintendent association, life insurance, health insurance, a car allowance and professional liability insurance.
The contract also includes the possibility for an annual salary adjustment and incentive pay. In the Mesa district, staff can earn incentive pay - a percentage of their base salary - based on department, school, district and personal goals. Any incentive earned by staff can be awarded to the superintendent at the same percentage.
Cowan was the only person interviewed for the Mesa job.
"I entered into an agreement to take care of the school system and am doing everything I can night and day to do that," Cowan said.
Several Valley school districts have hired new superintendents in the past few months.
After a national search, Scottsdale's governing board hired Gary T. Catalani to lead the district's 32 schools beginning July 1.
The Paradise Valley Unified School District conducted a national search, but hired Jim Lee, the district's assistant superintendent for support services, to take over July 1 as superintendent. His initial contract is for $159,000 a year. Paradise Valley has 44 schools and 34,000 students.
Dave Allison took over this school year as superintendent in the Gilbert Unified School District. His annual salary is $150,000. Allison was the 39,000-student district's associate superintendent and was hired after a three-month internal search.
The Apache Junction Unified School District has approved Chad Wilson as its new superintendent beginning July 1. A contract has not been finalized, the district spokeswoman said. Wilson is the district's associate superintendent.
Chandler Unified School District's longtime superintendent Camille Casteel is expected to have a new contract next week, district spokesman Terry Locke said. Chandler has more than 36,000 students.
Cowan noted that several districts are hiring from their own staff.
"The number of internal candidates speaks to the complicated nature of education in Arizona," he said. "To look at the funding formula, the deficit, the way we do things in Arizona, it's unique."
Chuck Essigs, government relations director for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials and a former financial officer in the Mesa district, agreed.
Arizona typically is listed as 49th in per-pupil spending in the country, Essigs said.
"If you're a superintendent, it makes it a lot more difficult to manage, especially in down time," Essigs said. "Some of those cuts you're facing are probably typical of other places around the country, but you have less dollars to work with."