The Mississippi Center for Public Policy undeniably has an agenda. It claims to be nonpartisan, but its priorities line up closely with those of the Republican Party — low taxes, light regulation and limited government.
So, you have to take whatever research the advocacy group puts out with that bias in mind.
Still, its annual Fat Cat Report does raise some valid concerns, especially when it comes to the arbitrariness at which a lot of public salaries in Mississippi are set, especially those of school superintendents.
The 2022 report, released this past week, contains the following findings:
The top 50 highest-paid public sector workers in Mississippi make more than the nation’s 50 governors.
School district superintendents dominate the list, claiming 26 of the top 50 spots, and there seems to be little correlation between their pay and their district’s academic performance.
The rich are getting richer, with pay raises of an average of 9% in 2022 for the Top 50, compared to about 5% for the average state government employee and 3% for private sector workers.
There are some caveats worth noting about these findings.
Comparing governors’ salaries and those of other public employees is a bit misleading, since it does not take into account all the perks that accrue to being a state’s chief executive. The job of governor comes with lots of non-salaried benefits, such as free housing, transportation, meals, domestic help and the like.
Also, the rankings overlook two categories of public employees in Mississippi that historically have been among the highest-paid: chancery and circuit clerks.
Several years ago, Mississippi put a cap on how much the clerks can make for their fee-paid position (it’s currently $94,500). They can, however, earn considerably more than the cap if their boards of supervisors let them handle other jobs for which they draw additional pay, such as county administrator, comptroller and keeper of the records.
Leflore County Chancery Clerk Johnny Gary Jr. made $230,000 last year when all of his taxpayer-funded sidelines are included. That would have put him in the Top 10 on the Fat Cat list.
Those flaws in the report aside, it does raise a valid concern when it comes to the salaries of school superintendents, which are set by local school boards. Their idea of an adequate compensation is all over the place and often seems to bear little relationship to either the size of the school district or the superintendent’s job performance.
The Mississippi Center for Public Policy, in an exercise at applying some objective standards in comparing superintendent salaries, assigned “grade points” to most every school district in the state based on enrollment and the district’s most recent accountability rating.
It found that the cost per grade point ranged from a dollar or two in some of the state’s largest and highest-performing districts to more than $100 in the smallest and worst-performing ones.
Comparing the Rankin County and West Tallahatchie districts, both of whose superintendents have salaries of around $105,000, perfectly illustrates the disparity. In Rankin County, an A-rated district with more than 18,000 students, the superintendent’s salary costs $1.15 per grade point, a superb value for its taxpayers. In the West Tallahatchie School District, an F-rated district with just 600 students, the cost ballooned to $174 per grade point, by far the worst return in the state.
Carroll County, by the way, was in the middle of the pack with a cost per grade point of $60.48. The Greenwood Leflore Consolidated School District, for reasons unknown, was omitted from the data provided by the Mississippi Department of Education to those doing the analysis.
What is the Mississippi Center for Public Policy’s solution to irrational and excessive school superintendent pay?
It recommends that the Legislature adopt a formula to calculate the maximum allowable salary for superintendents, taking into particular consideration the population within the school district.
It argues that since the state provides a large part of the money that funds the superintendent’s salary, it should have a say on how large that salary is, just as the Legislature largely establishes how much public schoolteachers make.
The difference, of course, is that the state sets minimum — not maximum — teacher salaries. School districts are free to add local supplements for teachers on top of the state schedule, as some of the wealthier districts do.
Also, capping superintendent salaries alone would not fix the problem of administrative bloat. School districts could still load up that category with assistant superintendents and other high-priced administrators.
Still, there should be some rhyme or reason to what school superintendents are paid. Presently, there doesn’t seem to be.
Tim Kalich is editor and publisher of The Greenwood Commonwealth.