Is Higley schools chief’s pay level deserving? - East Valley Tribune: News

Is Higley schools chief’s pay level deserving?

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Posted: Saturday, January 23, 2010 2:29 pm | Updated: 3:24 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

In this economy and with dwindling education budgets, when a top school chief receives a nearly $15,000 raise, there are obvious questions that come up.

Last week, Denise Birdwell, the superintendent of Higley Unified School District, signed a new three-year contract to keep her in the district until June 30, 2013. The contract, which starts July 1, raises her base salary, excluding benefits and a car allowance, from $125,000 to $139,900.

Taunya Lofgreen, a Higley mom with three children, said she knows of two district accounting employees who were laid off because of funding issues, and doesn’t agree with Birdwell’s raise.

“They were told there wasn’t enough money for salaries or raises. Now, we’re giving her (Birdwell) a raise?” Lofgreen said. “$140,000 for such a small school district is a lot of money.”

Lofgreen, who unsuccessfully ran for the school board in 2008, said Birdwell should have received incremental raises, such as $5,000 a year over the next three years.

Higley board president Paul Howell said the raise was “fair” because throughout the past year while Birdwell served in the top spot, she hired “top notch” staff and put together a “great team.”

Birdwell said even though she’s getting a raise now, she’s not expecting another one possibly for another three years because of the economy and state budget issues. She also stressed her current salary was among the lowest in the Valley.

An analysis of superintendent salaries in Arizona show the numbers do not follow a pattern based on experience or the size of the district.

Higley, with 10,000 students, 10 schools and 946 employees, is a smaller, but fast-growing district in Gilbert and Queen Creek. But a superintendent’s salary is often based on other factors as well.

As with any job, the way to get a good salary is through negotiating, especially with a new contract.

And with any industry, in order to keep a good leader, “you have to pay them,” said John Gordon, the director of leadership development for the Arizona School Boards Association, which helps school board members in training and superintendent searches.

Higley is a member, and the school board sought help from the organization with superintendent salary comparisons and consulting, Gordon said.

“What they’re paying Dr. Birdwell is not out of expectation,” Gordon said. “Good on them for securing a leader for three years. Trust in leadership is worth the price.”

On a national level, Arizona’s superintendent pay is also 10 to 20 percent lower than other states, Gordon said.


The Higley district has had tumultuous issues with its superintendency. Birdwell took the reins from former superintendent Joyce Lutrey in December 2008, who sought out and received a one-year early release from her contract. A parent group formed in 2008 urged the board to find new leadership in the district.

Birdwell took over as budget issues forced the district to make some tough decisions. Higley had to slice $5 million from the current budget because of state budget cuts. Six teachers were ultimately not hired back after the district sent out reduction-in-force letters to 48 employees last April.

The district is also expecting additional budget cuts this year and next year. Despite this, Birdwell announced to the school board Jan. 14 she is expecting to give all employees raises this year, including teachers.

Some parents believe Birdwell’s raise is warranted.

Stacy Lagoy, a Higley mom with two children, said she is pleased the governing board chose to move forward with Birdwell’s vision for the district.

“In a time of tumultuous budget cuts, Dr. Birdwell has worked to ensure that the district provides a quality academic experience and a multitude of extracurricular activities that enhance the learning of all (Higley) students,” said Lagoy, an active district volunteer. “Higley families and Higley students are benefiting from her leadership. The last thing (Higley) needs is upheaval and reconfiguration that a new superintendent can bring.”


Another growing district in the area, the J.O. Combs Unified School District, just approved a new superintendent Jan. 13 to replace the retiring Jan Langer.

Gayle Blanchard, a former principal and longtime employee in the Gilbert Unified School District, will rise from Combs human resources director to superintendent July 1.

As the superintendent, she will make $106,000 in her base salary in her two-year contract. J.O. Combs is smaller than Higley, with six schools, 4,215 students, and 500 employees, although it is a fast-growing district like Higley’s.

“The base salary is conservative, yet appropriate given the size of the district and the challenging economic times that school districts face,” Blanchard said in an e-mail. “As we await the economic recovery and the resulting growth of our community, being fiscally conservative is the right thing to do for the students and staff of the J.O. Combs District and the San Tan Valley Community.”

In the most recent annual survey conducted by the Arizona School Boards Association, which did not ask for the school district name to get a better response, the closest comparison to the Higley district would be districts with between 5,000 and 10,000 students.

According to the survey, a new superintendent in a Pinal County unified school district has a base salary of $102,000. A superintendent in a non-metro Maricopa County district with 12 years experience in the district and 15 years of previous experience, has a base salary of $115,000.

On the higher end, another superintendent in a non-metro Maricopa County district, with two years superintendent experience, has a $139,000 base salary. A superintendent in a Tucson area unified school district, with 14 years superintendent experience in that district and six years prior superintendent experience, has a $152,880 base salary.

Michael Martin, an ASBA research analyst who puts the surveys together, said he would not consider Birdwell’s new salary “outlandish.”

“One of the things I’ve noticed is frequently they’ll tell people to try and get a good salary upfront because raises may not keep up with the market,” Martin said. “They have to hire a new person at the market rate.”

Lutrey, the former Higley superintendent, was making $130,206 when she left the district.

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