While a majority of Illinois schools are reeling from unprecedented financial pressure and are looking to cut costs, some major Cook County educational districts are awarding hefty employment contracts to their superintendents, according to a BGA Rescuing Illinois analysis of financial data from nearly 150 districts.

The Better Government Association analyzed information from its “Cook County Schools Database,” which launched earlier this year on the BGA website. The database contains, among other things, contracts and salary information for administrators from districts in the state’s largest county. The documents were obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

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The BGA analysis also finds that when it comes to superintendent compensation, school district size doesn’t matter much. In many cases, leaders of large urban systems with more schools and students are paid less than those running districts in more affluent areas with only one or two schools and fewer pupils enrolled.

Jim Nowlan, former Republican state representative

Moreover, while school districts throughout Illinois are looking to cut spiraling administrative costs by consolidating with neighboring districts, suburban Cook County is sidestepping that trend even though administrative costs at many school districts are among the highest in the country, according to census data analyzed by the BGA. Since the early 1980s, the number of school districts statewide has diminished by nearly 150, but during that span only one suburban Cook County district has been involved in an annexation, reorganization or consolidation.

“What sounds so rational to us, consolidation so as to reduce costs, is not seen as rational to those who are invested in the small districts,” said Jim Nowlan, a former Republican state representative from Downstate Toulon, and an advisor to three Illinois governors.

Among the BGA’s findings:

  • Three Cook County districts have superintendents with 2013-14 base salaries in excess of $300,000:
    • Linda Yonke at New Trier 203 ($317,311)
    • Edward Tivador of Northbrook Glenview 30 ($315,616)
    • Joyce Carmine of Park Forest 163 ($311,107)
  • The average Cook County superintendent has a base salary of roughly $193,000. The BGA found that figure after averaging base salaries for nearly every superintendent in Cook County, factoring out only interim superintendents. 
  • In addition to their base salaries, many districts also compensate their superintendents with bonuses, retirement enhancements and other perks. Plus, some are allowed to take a portion of their salary in the form of a deferred compensation plan such as a tax-sheltered annuity.

The BGA analysis also found that superintendents overseeing districts with many schools and higher student populations are typically paid less than those managing districts with only one or two schools.

“It sounds inefficient, there’s no getting around that. It sounds like the price paid for the superintendents is greater than the responsibility,” Nowlan said.

The BGA contacted every superintendent mentioned in this story, but most either declined to comment or did not respond.

For example, as head of Chicago’s more than 400,000 students at 650 public schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett earns $250,000 per year. But, her 2013-14 salary only ranks her 10th among Cook County superintendents, the BGA investigation found.

In comparison, at $317,311 for 2013-14, Yonke, of New Trier 203, has Cook County’s highest base salary. Yonke oversees two high schools that serve a little more than 4,000 total students, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education.

Tivador of Northbrook Glenview 30 has a 2013-14 base salary of $315,616 to run an elementary district with three schools and roughly 1,000 students. That ranks him second in Cook County, the BGA found.

Carmine, of Park Forest 163, pointed to her district’s success on state testing and reading scores and her experience as reasons for her $311,307 salary. She runs an elementary district with six schools in a largely minority area.

“As the CEO of a $27.5 million organization I bring 20 years of teaching experience, ten years of school principal experience, grant writing experience and now 11 years of superintendent experience to the table,” she wrote in an email. “I am pleased that the board and school community remain confident in my leadership.”

Some superintendents have a different contract structure that keeps their base salary lower, while their total compensation is considerably higher.

For instance, Frances McTague of Skokie 68 has a base salary of $243,554 for 2013-14, but, on top of that, she’ll receive a $76,333 bonus, according to her contract. Factoring in her bonus, McTague will earn nearly $320,000. Skokie 68 has four schools, and a little more than 1,700 students.

The BGA Rescuing Illinois review also found three other superintendents in the top 10 earn more than $250,000 per year to run districts with just one school. They are: Von Mansfield of Homewood Flossmoor 233 ($260,434), Kevin O’Mara of Argo 217 ($257,500) and Eric Witherspoon of Evanston 202 ($255,247). All told, there are nearly 30 districts in suburban Cook County with just one school.

The BGA contacted every superintendent mentioned in this story, but most either declined to comment or did not respond.

“Superintendent salaries and benefits vary a great deal by where you are,” said William Mathis, who was a superintendent for 28 years at a district in Vermont before joining the University of Colorado as a researcher. Mathis said working at an affluent, suburban district is a career goal for many superintendents.

“They have much more to offer, and they will offer more,” he said.

There are around 850 school districts in Illinois, which is the third most in the nation. Since 1983, nearly 150 districts in Illinois have been eliminated through consolidation. But, just one of those consolidations was in Cook County, when Lemont Bromberek 113A was formed after two districts merged in 1990—a plan that generated a lot of local wrangling and was barely approved in a voter referendum.

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Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Chief Executive Officer for Chicago Public Schools (CPS)

What’s more, while the state provides financial resources for districts exploring consolidation, only one Cook County district – Hazel Crest 152.5 – has even requested funds in the last 10 years, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education.

Illinois spends more on district-level administration than any other state, according to census data analyzed by the BGA. Nationwide, about 1.5 percent of school district spending goes to administrators. In Chicago public schools, that figure is 2.2 percent, and in suburban Cook County, it’s 3.5 percent.

Nowlan said he’s calling for more consolidation in a soon-to-be-released book called “Fixing Illinois.” Particularly, he said merging high school districts with their elementary feeder districts would reduce the total number by around 330, and would reduce administrative costs.

But, he said, it would take a fight, in part because of challenges like merging pension and debt liabilities, or just resistance to trying something new.

“I think the reason there’s been slowness to consolidation has to do with the natural human dynamic of people being resistant to change,” Nowlan said.

This article was written and reported by the BGA’s Patrick McCraney. BGA Senior Policy Analyst Alden Loury contributed to this report. McCraney can be reached at pmccraney@bettergov.org or (815) 483-1612.