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State school board hands out an ill-timed, unwarranted pay raise | COMMENTARY

Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon speaks about schools during the coronavirus pandemic on July 22, 2020.
Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon speaks about schools during the coronavirus pandemic on July 22, 2020. (Colin Campbell/Baltimore Sun)

Maryland’s current state superintendent of schools isn’t one of the more high-profile figures in state government. Karen Salmon is probably best known for her pandemic-related, live-streamed briefings with Gov. Larry Hogan in which she offers modest guidance for K-12 schools to reopen if they so choose. If anything, her four-year tenure is seen as fairly innocuous with neither any great accomplishment nor scandal on her record. She’s had minimal impact on what is easily the most important development during her time in the office: the creation of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future (the sweeping public education funding and reform bill authored by the Kirwan Commission and vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan in May). And so, it was no great surprise when Superintendent Salmon announced last winter that she would be stepping down at the conclusion of her contract this June. T

But here’s the real shocker: In late June, under terms of a contract only recently — and reluctantly — disclosed to The Sun’s Liz Bowie, the board, whose search for a replacement was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, opted to retain Superintendent Salmon for another year by giving her a $40,000 pay raise, increasing her annual salary from $235,000 to $275,000, a 17% handout. The justification? Apparently to keep her happy and because some local school systems pay their superintendents more. That’s certainly true. Large school systems like Baltimore County Public Schools, which gave incoming superintendent Darryl Williams a $290,000 salary, offer pay at competitive rates to fill these vital positions. But with that kind of money comes intense pressure to perform.

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Here’s what makes Superintendent Salmon’s pay raise especially suspect. It was given in the throes of a pandemic that has not only left Maryland’s 24 public school systems struggling to piece together plans for the fall (and without firm standards from the Maryland State Department of Education or Ms. Salmon about exactly how to do that) but at a time of major budget shortfalls. The rise in unemployment and downturn in tax revenue has gotten so bad that it’s not clear that her fellow state employees will get a promised 2% cost-of-living adjustment in January. Just last month, Governor Hogan proposed not only suspending that pay raise but cutting state salaries through temporary pay cuts and furloughs by about 3%. The proposal was rejected by fellow members of the Board of Public Works but could easily resurface in the months ahead as budget cutting continues.

The state school board knew all of this but still handed out the money, which more fittingly should be going to virtual learning or technical support to teachers or child care for families or the dozens of other pressing educational needs the pandemic has wrought. And here’s the other irony: Republicans in Annapolis have long complained that Kirwan-related funding would be wasteful, that it would go to top-heavy school system administrative costs. And, lo and behold, Mr. Hogan’s appointees on the board chose to waste money on their top administrator. At least Kirwan promises higher standards to go along with higher pay for teachers.

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We don’t wish to be unduly harsh on Superintendent Salmon. These are challenging times for schools and would be no matter who was serving in her job. But it would not be unreasonable for a state superintendent to have developed clear benchmarks for how and when schools should reopen, for example. Her failure to provide explicit guidelines (when, for example, the new cases rate is low enough to risk in-person classes) contributed to the recent Montgomery County debacle over whether private schools should be closed by the local health officer. The real failure here belongs to the state school board, which should not be writing $40,000 bonus checks while average Marylanders are hurting.

Here’s one solution. The state superintendent’s contract went into effect on July 1, and she could offer to donate her pay increase to one or more non-profits that support public education in Maryland. The gesture would spare her further public embarrassment and perhaps even motivate other Marylanders to do the same. Such a gesture is sometimes required of effective leaders. And there’s some urgency involved given the difficult road ahead for educators who six months into the pandemic are still learning how to deal with the crisis. There aren’t always good choices, just less bad ones. This is one error that can’t be erased but can be revised.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels, writer Peter Jensen and summer intern Anjali DasSarma — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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