the pay problem

A look at the whys and hows of executive pay at charter schools

A hotly-debated topic in the larger battle between charter school advocates and those who oppose their expansion is the question of executive pay. How much is too much for a charter school chief executive officer?

Though charter schools are privately operated, they receive public funding, which opens them up to criticism when their CEOs and CFOs receive high six-figure salaries.

One interesting case study is Harlem Village Academies, a network of charter schools founded by Deborah Kenny in 2001, which operates three charter schools — two middle schools and one high school — in Harlem. According to an analysis done by Kim Gittleson, Kenny also happens to be one of the mostly highly-paid charter executives in the city, second only to Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children Zone charter schools.

Like all charter schools, Kenny’s schools are privately operated but receive public funding, opening her up to criticism that her salary far exceeds what traditional public school administrators earn. This year, Kenny’s base salary, excluding her pension and expense account, is $275,000. She also has the opportunity, as she has every year, to earn a year-end bonus of $150,000 if her schools do well, putting her total salary at a potential $425,000.

Ed Lewis, chairman of the board for Harlem Village Academies, said Kenny’s salary is entirely paid by the board and private contributions.

“She’s not being paid out of funds from the public,” Lewis said. “She’s being paid by private funding and I think the individuals who have given money to the charter school clearly understand that in order to maintain and to try and provide the continuing best results, we need to attract and keep and compensate people, particularly if they perform. She’s just been sterling at getting results.”

Lewis said that comparing Kenny’s salary to what traditional public school principals or superintendents make is unfair, as those positions don’t come with the job requirement of connecting with donors and raising funds to support the schools’ survival.

“It’s all part of the effort to attract fundraisers who are interested in the concept of providing the best service for our kids,” Lewis said. “Deborah has this ability to attract and reach out to a variety of people. What she is paid is quite appropriate.”

Peter Murphy, policy director for the New York Charter Schools Association, said it’s difficult to object to charter CEOs’ salaries, as they have raised the money that goes to paying them.

“What charter schools have brought into the public education world is the educational-entrepreneur, who takes enormous risks, works killer hours and brings new ideas and investors into public education,” Murphy said. “They’re paying their own salaries by raising ten fold or a hundred fold what they get paid themselves.”

Kenny’s starting salary was $140,000 with a possible bonus of $40,000, Lewis said, adding that she did not receive a raise for five years. Last year, her salary was frozen because of the economic downturn and the difficulties the charter organization faced in raising money.

Asked what prompts debate about charter CEOs’ salaries, Lewis attributed the criticism to jealousy.

The teachers union and charter school opponents “are going to try and protect their turf,” Lewis said. “So if you have the possibility of a new competitor in the market place who is bringing in results, then you’re going to get a reaction.”

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”