Gurney's Inn
January 10, 2007

School House Shock: Administrators Mopping Up The Moolah

Scrutiny of school district spending has reached an all time high. Throughout the last year or more elected officials from many levels of government vowed to seek cost cutting initiatives. Newly elected governor Eliot Spitzer vowed to make reducing property taxes a priority. District boards of education themselves vowed to do their best to keep a tight hold on the purse strings. But, outside of island-wide scandals revealing sweetheart deals and flat out theft by school officials up west, there has been little talk of the salaries some districts pay their administrators and appointees who work outside the protection of union contracts.

Recently, an East Hampton reader contacted The Independent appalled by the salary the school board voted to pay Eric Woellhof, whose official title is school maintenance crew leader. His job involves supervision of all district buildings and grounds. He will make $90,000.

Asked whether the salary seemed high, Superintendent Ray Gualtieri said the pay was "within five percent" of what Woellhof was making at his last post in the Miller Place school district. (Miller Place, by the way, has some notoriety on the island. Lacking commercial properties, it bears some of the highest property taxes in Suffolk County.)

We posed the same question to officials in other districts. The salary is on par with what others doing a similar job would make, they said. Next, we went to officials in local and county government to learn what one of their employees carrying out similar — and in most cases, many more — tasks would make. What we learned was rather stunning.

In East Hampton the employee whose job description most matches Woellhof's is Bob Rodgers, the head of the town department of parks and recreation. Rodgers oversees some 100 town owned structures, all of its parks, plus a panoply of other duties, including heading the recreation component of town services. He just got a raise and this year will make, $65,000, $35,00 less than the school district employee. Town Supervisor Bill McGintee will make just $2000 more than Woellhof this year. His reaction upon being apprised of the pay difference? "I'm in the wrong business," he said dryly.

Defending the salary, Gualtieri noted that his employee may look after fewer buildings, but they're much bigger.

Consider this. All the schools in East Hampton could easily fit — with room to spare — in the 12-story Dennison Tower in Hauppauge, home to County Executive Steve Levy and myriad county departments. The Tower is just one of close to 1000 structures the County Commissioner of Public Works is in charge of maintaining. Duties for that position also include maintaining all county roads. A staff of over 900 toils under the commissioner. Charles Bartha was making $136,000 after eight years as commissioner when he retired last year.

The staffer who oversees facilities for the Southampton School District, Randy Dobler, will be paid $140,000 this year.

His position, according to BOE vice president Don King, however, is more elevated than that of a typical plant manager. Dobler is a tenured assistant superintendent with broader responsibilities. A strict salary comparison to a typical facilities manager is not necessarily accurate, King said.

How about a comparison to the person who bears responsibility for an entire town? Southampton Town Supervisor Skip Heaney will be making $38,000 less than Dobler this year. Discussing the notion of school district spending this week, Heaney offered rare praise for County Executive Steve Levy's efforts to bring together a task force of school officials and his own experts with the goal of brainstorming ways schools can save money. Said Heaney, "For too long the culture surrounding the operation of school districts has gone largely unchallenged." While county officials lack authority to mandate change, their efforts shine a new spotlight on the need for it, Heaney believes.

So does the county legislature's Presiding Officer Bill Lindsay (D. Holbrook). He's formed a blue ribbon commission to address alternate ways of funding schools. "The whole issue of what we pay for education is something that's front and center," he said. "We're trying to create a dialogue . . . we need change and the more of us that scream for change, the more chance it's going to be heard."

"There's no doubt about it," Lindsay continued, "salaries in the schools' systems are much higher than they are in the public sector." He recalled attending a recent school function, sitting on the dais with several school and county police officials and thinking to himself, "I'm probably sitting next to a million dollars worth of salaries." He estimated that throughout Suffolk's 62 school districts, salaries for upper level management comprise "a pretty good chunk of what we spend."

Beyond bringing together school officials to brainstorm strategies, Levy floated an idea that, the CE recalled, "went over like a lead balloon." He proposed electing one official to oversee each district's finances. "If one person had to get elected, you'd see how fast these excesses would be reined in," he said Monday. Since 80 percent of any budget traditionally goes to salaries and benefits, "It's that much more important not to have excesses on the higher levels."

Levy reminded that when he took office, he cut his own pay as well as that of most of his appointed staff. Since he's been in office, he's taken some $30,000 less than he's allowed to by statute.

Some believe municipal sector salaries are typically lower than elsewhere. "The fact is that a town government or a village government or a private corporation would not be paying $140,000 for someone to do that function," Heaney said. "If we advertised that job at $70,000, we'd get a slew of interested applicants."

Levy and Heaney both emphasized that school property taxes make up the lion's share of every homeowners' tax bill. Still, as leaders, they are often the lightning rod for taxpayers angered by increases. When he's approached by an irate citizen, Heaney says, "I am responsible for perhaps 12 percent of your total taxes. You know my name. Can you name one member of your local school board?"

Invariably, he said, the person can't name any one of the five people responsible for as much as 75 percent of the taxes they pay. "People don't make the connection, and it's simply getting out of control."

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