White smoke / By James H. Lee
Published 1:04 am, Friday, April 9, 2010
On July 1, Fairfield will have a new superintendent of schools. The incumbent, Dr. Ann Clark, retires June 30, and she is definitely going out at the top of her game. The new person, Dr. David Title, is now the superintendent in Bloomfield. By all accounts, Bloomfield is disappointed, even dismayed, to see him go. One of the sad realities of public school finance is that districts like Fairfield have the wherewithal to poach the best talent from most of the rest of the state, and as decent people we really ought to regret doing that, particularly when we do it so often. That said, the dismay we have caused is probably further evidence that we have gotten good value.
I was on the board that selected Clark in 2002, and I was also on the board that selected her predecessor, Dr. Carol Harrington, in 1990. The superintendent search process is highly confidential, and I had no inside information whatsoever this time around, which is as it should be. However, I know enough of the members of the present board, and I have enough confidence in their judgment, that I am comfortable with their choice.
Not counting interims, Title is the third consecutive superintendent to have already been serving as a superintendent elsewhere when Fairfield selected him. (Harrington's predecessor, who served from 1986 to 1989, had been an assistant superintendent in Greenwich.) He is the second superintendent in a row to have won a state Superintendent of the Year award before coming to Fairfield. (Harrington won one while she was here, and Clark won a second one here.) And he is the first man in 20 years, although that may say more about us than it does about him.
He is also the first superintendent in at least 20 years -- make that, in living memory -- to be greeted by a two-man chorus of boos over his salary.
Apparently, some of the members of the board had given some of the town leaders -- the first selectman, and the RTM majority leader, to name two -- the impression that a new superintendent might be found at a lower compensation level than Clark's. I doubt that either of the two members with actual experience in a superintendent search could have been the source of that misapprehension, because they would have known better. The fact is that the market for superintendents of schools does not favor those who would hire them, because superintendents -- at least, the good ones -- are chronically in short supply. This was one of the reasons Harrington's salary broke the $100,000 barrier when she was hired in 1990, and Clark's broke the $200,000 barrier in 2002. The other reason is that a superintendent of school's compensation becomes a political target on day one, such that there is a constant downward pressure throughout his tenure, and usually a no-increase year somewhere along the line. The result of all that is that superintendents get their only meaningful raises when they change jobs, so they tend to come in high and then stay relatively flat. Still, when the terms of the contract were finally released, the first selectman and the majority leader were shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that the new pay package would not be lower after all, but would instead be about $5,000 higher than the current one.
I can appreciate their concern for the taxpayers' pocketbooks. Contrary to popular belief, I am not in favor of runaway spending, and I was brought up from an early age to abhor waste. I just have a more inclusive idea of what waste is, and I think these leaders have their priorities backwards. The superintendent market may work against us, but the market that is important to most of us is the real estate market.
The effect this pay package will have on my taxes is about an extra 25 cents: $5,000 in new money (the rest is already in the budget), divided by about 22,000 taxpayers, and then adjusting upward for the fact that my taxes are a bit above the average. On the other side of the ledger, I think it matters more that the person running a $140 million school system knows what he is doing, not only for its own sake but also because the school system is one of the main reasons our homes are so valuable.
Our taxable grand list of $11-plus billion represents a market value of close to $17 billion, and it consists overwhelmingly of residential real estate. To paraphrase the old real estate adage, the three most important factors are the school system, the school system and the school system. It is especially in times like these that we should be doing whatever it takes to hold on to that advantage.
James H. Lee writes a regular column for the Fairfield Citizen.