By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
Wyoming school district superintendents last year were paid 22% more than what was recommended by the Legislature – but many education leaders say the higher wage is just right.
Nearly all of the state’s school district boards of trustees paid their superintendents more in the past decade than what was recommended by the Legislature, according to the 2022 CRERW, or Continued Review of Educational Resources in Wyoming report.
Superintendents’ annual salaries in the 2020-2021 school year averaged $141,358, about $25,000 more than the the 2021 recommendation of $116,016.
Brian Farmer, executive director of the Wyoming School Boards Association, said the school boards, not lawmakers, have the salaries right.
“The actual salaries the districts expend are much more realistic as a representation of the market,” said Farmer, referencing a 2020 funding study which “basically said that the model funding is insufficient and that we are losing ground to our surrounding states.”
Colorado school superintendents make a median wage of $168,000 per year, according to salary.com.
High salaries in surrounding states, the reduced appeal of remote communities, increasing salaries nationwide and retention difficulties in Wyoming all are factors supporting the higher pay, Farmer said.
Wyoming spent about $1.8 billion on K-12 education in the 2020-21 school year – up more than $100 million from the previous year. Of that, about $891 million was spent on instructional salaries and benefits. School districts spent about $8 million less than the Legislature’s model suggested for operations and maintenance, $7 million less on professional development, and about $1 million less on vocational education supplies – leaving some spending flexibility in the allotted block grant.
Another reason school boards often have leeway to pay school superintendents and other staff more, Farmer said, is because state analysts expect them to hire more staff than they do.
“‘Ghost employee’ is a term the Legislature uses, and what they mean is the model allocates a certain number of people for staffing,” he said.
For instance, he continued, if a school district is recommended to have 600 teachers but only has 550, the salaries slated for “those 50 teachers you’re short” can be redistributed to the existing staff.
“The model is really just the best guess of the consultants, of what it would take to run a school district,” he said.
Teachers also made more than the model suggested in 2021 – but at a slimmer margin. School boards on average paid teachers 11%, or just under $6,000, more than the suggested salary.
Principals made 14% more than model figures; assistant principals came in at 20% higher. Assistant superintendents and business managers averaged roughly 25% more in salaries than the model recommended.
State Rep. Jerry Paxton, R-Encampment, said salaries veer from the legislative model because Wyoming is a “local control state.”
“There’s a lot of resentment about (the salaries),” said Paxton, who chairs the House Committee on Education. “Every year, legislators who are about as far right as you can get look at the salaries for the superintendent and really shudder at giving any kind of financial boost.”
But, he added, “the school boards are the ones that set that salary when they’re recruiting superintendents.”
Paxton said the higher salaries are evidence of tempting wages in other areas and difficulties retaining and recruiting qualified leaders.
He also noted that some regions in Wyoming have an above-average cost of living.
The Teton County School District 1 superintendent made $209,858 last year, which was the highest salary in any district.
Spending Among Highest in Nation
Wyoming has the highest per-student expenditures in the region and is 11th in the nation at $17,631 per pupil per year, more than $3,000 greater than the national average and more than $4,000 greater than the highest play in surrounding states, found in Colorado.
Wyoming receives less than one-fifth the federal funding Colorado receives, at just under $1 million in 2019 compared to Colorado’s $5.2 million.