Monday, May 19, 2003

A Question of Principals

A signed email sent by a parent at an important Modern Orthodox day school away from New York to other school parents raises issues that deserve attention. He asked why tuition is “going up 10% again next year” to a high of about $14,000, why the headmaster is being paid $250,000 and another educational administrator $150,000 and why a school administrator earns about $200,000 – all this while teachers continue to be poorly paid.

Questions like these are being asked by day school parents around the country, especially in the non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox sectors, and they are being asked with greater fervor, even anger, in this period of economic downturn as more parents are struggling to meet escalating tuition charges while they must also take care of other obligations. Administrative budgets are exploding at day schools – but not at yeshivas – as schools are adding personnel, at times paying them far above what even affluent school districts that rely on tax revenue and public funds pay those who run much larger public schools.

Something is badly out of whack, although it’s hard to tell from the cliché-ridden agendas of the burgeoning roster of conferences and events that allow our top educators to holiday at school or communal expense as they absent themselves from the institutions that they are being well paid to direct. Apparently, additional administrators are needed to cover for those who are undergoing the terrible sacrifice of attending conventions.

These issues aren’t going to go away. Even in the yeshiva world where tuition is relatively low compared to elsewhere and scholarships are relatively available compared to elsewhere, many parents are upset. For them, a yeshiva education is a religious obligation and few parents will remove their children, something that is happening in more modern schools. Still, the pain is evident and is taking a toll in the erosion of shalom bayis.

As administrative salaries have skyrocketed, faculty salaries have continued to lag and now they are even further behind what public schools pay their teachers and this is without calculating the value of fringe benefits. Those who are in the classroom and have direct contact with Jewish schoolchildren are getting the short end of the stick.

The reining in of principal salaries and perks will not of itself result in a large shift of available funds to enhance teachers’ salaries or, alternatively, hold back tuition increases. Day school finances are complicated and there are quite a few reasons for increased costs, this year including tremendous hikes in insurance and security expenses. Furthermore, the income side of day school budgets has been under increasing pressure because a declining proportion of income comes from charitable gifts. School boards feel compelled to raise tuition because there is no other source they can readily turn to.

Still, the holding down of the salaries of top administrators will make a marginal difference. Besides, it is wrong to coddle principals while teachers are neglected and often told to look elsewhere if they are unhappy. What day schools are paying for some of the high-priced talent is only one part of the disproportionate priorities that abound in day school education. Nearly all of our communal and philanthropic involvement in day schools adds to the sense that those who are already best off are the ones who are most deserving of added attention or benefit. There is an extensive and expensive network of projects that offers a smorgasbord of goodies to those who are coddled, including trips to Israel and other exotic places, training programs where they are presumably taught what they are already being paid to do and the ability to moonlight as consultants and mentors.

There are, for sure, principals who are not especially well paid and who focus on the job that they are hired to do. These good men and women do good work and deserve our appreciation. Unfortunately, in the world of day school principals the trend is in the other direction and it is abetted by placement officials who at times act as agents for the candidates, caring too little about the situation of schools that are seeking principals.

The way to respond to the growing dissatisfaction in the day school world is not to write to parents as the president of the school with the $250,000 headmaster has written that we “have historically maintained a high degree of confidentiality concerning compensation” and we always “strive to compensate all employees at appropriate rates within budgetary constraints.” In view of what is happening with tuition, parents have a right to know what is happening with the money that they pay and there is no way that the differential between what is being paid to teachers and to top administrators can be justified as appropriate.

There is a flip side to the coddling of principals. In the parts of the day school world that are most generous to its top people, the tendency is for jobs to be as secure as they are for baseball managers. School boards that dole out large sums to attract what is supposed to be super talent seem to come to the realization, often sooner than later, that they were had and they get rid of the person who not long before was being given an opulent welcome mat.

This approach doesn’t help much either because it avoids the fundamental imbalance in the way day school resources are allocated. My modest proposal is for a one-year moratorium on conventions and conferences and all of the rest of the flotsam and jetsam that has become too large a part of the day school scene. Hopefully, this will be accompanied by a significant scaling-down by communal and philanthropic sources of the side-shows that they constantly favor. The funds that are freed up should be applied directly to the classroom experience, to the education of our children by the people who nearly always are underpaid and yet teach with devotion and skill.