Salary increases approved for Waukesha School Board, superintendent

Published on: 1/7/2014

For Dan Warren, increasing salaries for members of the School Board boiled down to one word: respect.

"For me, it's very simple," said Warren, who took part in his final meeting as School Board president last month. "It comes down to fundamental respect."

This was the first time raises for the nine-member board has been discussed since 1999.

The board — in a 7-2 vote — approved $1,200 raises. The raises will go into effect following the 2014 spring election.

Board members will receive $6,400, compared to $5,200, the amount they received for almost 15 years. But because their positions were changed from "independent contractors" to "employees with no benefits" two years ago, they pay a Federal Insurance Contributions Act tax. As a result, $400 of that amount is taken out of their salary.

That's why Warren changed his initial recommendation from $6,000 to $6,400.

But Warren, who has since retired after 21 years on the board, said after inflation the increase should be more.

"I recommended a very modest number," Warren said. "If you look at what $5,200 worth is now, it's a lot bigger than what we're talking about." The School Board is paid less than the Waukesha County Board and Common Council.

Board member Joseph Como explained this stipend is the only form of compensation the board receives. The board doesn't get any type of benefits.

Opposed of raises

Steve Edlund and Karin Rajnicek, however, voted against the raises.

Rajnicek said when she came on the board three years ago she thought it was a volunteer position.

"We are servants," Rajnicek said. "We are here to serve ... If people want to be here, if people are here for the right reasons I believe they're going to put in the sweat and tears in order to do the right thing."

Edlund brought the item forward from the committee level, but agreed with Rajnicek.

"This is kind of a tough one for me because no matter what you do there is no right and there is no wrong answer," Edlund said. "You're not doing it for the money. If I was doing this for the money I would be a county supervisor because there's benefits that come with the job, too. Quite frankly, we're the lowest-paid organization with a very large budget."

Giving it support

Ellen Langill, however, said bumping up salaries could make a difference for some.

"We're not suggesting anyone who is here is doing it for the money," Langill said. "I mean how ludicrous would that be? When you calculate per hour it's phenomenally ridiculous."

The Common Council recently approved raises for aldermen during each election cycle from $6,500 to $7,000 and the Waukesha County Supervisors make more than $9,500.

Longtime board member William Baumgart said it was "the intention to get closer" to what those governmental bodies were making. However, he said due to financial concerns within the district over the last decade, increasing salaries was the furthest from the board's agenda.

"We were in significant budget crunches," Baumgart said. "We took a responsible move and didn't even bring up the subject when we knew we were falling behind the other two local governmental entities."

Since School Board members meet so often through committee meetings, Barbara Brzenk said they should be compensated. She heard this same opinion from a member of the Common Council and County Board.

“She felt since we meet so often she said if you don’t support yourself, the community isn’t going to value your work or value you as a member of this board,” said Brzenk, while adding that she understood that “people are feeling uncomfortable about this. It’s a touchy issue. We’re not here to get rich. I don't think $6,400 is anything for us to be ashamed of."

Unanimous on Gray

The board was certainly not ashamed to talk about the job of Superintendent Todd Gray. And unlike their own salaries, they unanimously approved a salary increase for Gray, the district's superintendent since 2008.

The board approved a 2-percent increase for Gray's salary from July 2013 through December 2013 and an additional 2 percent from January 2014 to June 2014.

Christine Hedstrom, assistant superintendent for Human Resources and Labor Relations, said Gray was previously paid $161,968 at the end of the fiscal year, June 30, 2013. His July through December 2013 salary was approved for $165,207 and the January 2014 through June salary is $168,511 for an average of approximately $166,859.

In 2012-13, Hedstrom said Gray had been provided a 1.5-percent increase from July to December 2012 ($159,574), plus another 1.5-percent increase for January through June 2013 ($161,968) for an average of $160,771.

Warren said when Gray had his annual performance evaluation, he had "glowing remarks."

This was evident at last month's meeting.

Gray's communication skills, professional development for teachers, work in getting the district out of its financial troubles to having no debt and expanding technology in the classroom, were recognized by the board.

Hedstrom said when comparing Gray's old salary to other area superintendents for the 2012-13 school year that are smaller than Waukesha, Gray made less than many.

While Como said “we still haven’t gotten him to where he needs to be” he added that the increase is getting closer to the districts comparable to Waukesha.

“I know we started Mr. Gray out lower than we should have and he accepted that because he believed he was a match here in Waukesha,” Como said. “I think he’s still underpaid as you look at all the other data looking at neighboring districts and throughout the state.”

A successful leader

Edlund said Gray is still underpaid and compared Gray's position to that of a chief executive officer that has to run a $150 million/year business with about 1,200 employees.

"We are a corporation," Edlund said. "When you put it in those terms, Todd you're a bargain. We're an urban school district. We have a wonderful blend of every cross-section of life in this school district. My evaluation is based on the performance and direction the district is heading."

He, along with many others, credit Gray for leading the district in this direction and said there’s no doubt if Gray left they’d be paying a new superintendent much more.

“When you look at $165,000 or $168,000 that’s a lot of money in anybody’s world and I get that and don’t expect all of our constituents to understand that someone should be paid that much,” said Warren, who added Gray is paid average when compared to other superintendents. “But the reality is there’s no question he’s worth it. I’ve worked with three superintendents and Todd is way above the other two, hands down. No question about it. Blue-chip individuals like Todd Gray are few and far between.”

Gray appreciated the compliments.

"I give 100 percent of the credit to the staff," Gray said. "It's always a team effort."