Las Vegas Sun

April 18, 2014

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Board smart not to raise the superintendent salary stakes

We’ve all heard how difficult it is to recruit candidates for the Clark County School District’s superintendent position. Obviously, the School Board wants to hire the best possible candidate, and Nevada’s kids need to have a good education to compete in the global economy. But after the consultants in the superintendent search claimed the district needed to pay more to recruit the best candidates, I worried about what the board would do. I shouldn’t have. Late last month the board said no to the consultants and kept the original salary for the position.

That’s the right decision. The board realized, correctly, that the person with the highest salary demands isn’t necessarily the best person for the job. I’ve learned this in my own research. I study how lawyers behave and how corporate scandals occur — two areas that, despite all the lawyer jokes that you hear, aren’t always directly linked.

Often, where you find a corporate scandal, you’ll find most of the top executives earning big bucks. By definition, in those scandals, the boards indulged their executives’ desire to be at the top of a national compensation chart. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with high salaries. Money, by itself, doesn’t corrupt, and not every highly paid executive is bad. Still, many organizations start losing their way when they choose the wrong measures of what constitutes a “good” executive.

There are good executives for every position, but the trick is to match the executive’s skills with what an organization needs at a particular time — not to assume that the person who can hold out for the most money is the obvious first choice. Finding a “good” CEO is not a one-size-fits-all search. The board must figure out what the organization needs and only then can it find the person whose skills fit those needs.

The superintendent position is a tough job, even in good economic times. Given Nevada’s financial crisis, the job will be significantly more difficult to do well. This superintendent is going to have to balance the needs of students with the need to retain good faculty and staff. Increasing the incoming superintendent’s salary, after having cut the salaries of everyone else in the organization, would send precisely the wrong message and might even doom the new chief’s ability to lead.

There are great people who don’t ask for a high salary, even though they could, and there are great people who are earlier in their careers who can’t yet command top salaries but have the skills to do the job. In a way, the race toward a high salary is like my favorite scene in the movie “This is Spinal Tap,” where one musician says his amplifier is louder because the number on the dial goes to 11, not 10. We need to learn the lesson that it’s not the number on the dial but the actual power of the amp that matters.

There’s a limit to what educational institutions can cut without making the educational effort itself worthless. There’s a difference between making do with less (a good idea, when there’s still room to cut) and the “more with none” threat of a dramatically decreased budget. If we don’t have a strong K-12 program, our students who want to continue their education after high school will find themselves too far behind to be able to take advantage of the benefits of higher education. Jobs are scarce in Nevada now and employers are reluctant to come here (despite our low taxes) because they need a more educated workforce. If we don’t do a good job of educating Nevada’s kids, we’re not just hurting them, we’re hurting our entire economy.

Because the board is on a roll, here’s another suggestion: It should think long and hard about what the new superintendent’s benchmarks should be. Every benchmark creates an incentive to tailor behavior to meet the benchmark, especially if there’s bonus money attached.

Think about football coaches. If a university measures success by going to bowl games, nothing else the team does is going to matter. Goodbye, graduation rates for the athletes. Goodbye, off-the-field discipline issues. Benchmarks set priorities, and the wrong benchmarks set the wrong priorities.

I have faith in this School Board because it had the courage to say no to the consultants and do what’s right for our community. Now it has the most difficult job of all: to figure out what benchmarks it should use to demonstrate that the School District is doing its best to educate our kids, and to find someone who can, over time, help it meet those benchmarks. But by teaching our kids that the highest salary isn’t always the best idea, it’s done something important.

Nancy Rapoport is the Gordon Silver Professor of Law at the William S. Boyd School of Law, UNLV. Her statements here reflect only her views and not those of the university or its administration.

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