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Utah's five largest school districts appear to be getting a pretty good bang for their buck when their superintendents' salaries are compared with their peers nationwide.

The average salary for superintendents of districts with 25,000-plus students is $225,897, but four of five in Utah earn well below that mark. Only Jordan School District's Barry Newbold, who is retiring on Jan. 1, earns about $5,000 more than the average.

"Superintendents in Utah actually are not overpaid," said Andrea Rorrer, director of the Utah Education Policy Center at the University of Utah. "Districts are getting quite a bit for the amount of salary the superintendents are receiving."

Still, that's probably how it should be, says Howard Stephenson, president of the Utah Taxpayers Association.

"Utah's average annual wage is about 80 percent of the national average annual wage," said Stephenson, a Republican state senator from Draper. "So for Utah superintendents to be paid less than their national counterparts seems to make sense if we're comparing their salaries to those who pay their salaries­ — taxpayers."

Average teacher salaries in Utah were the third lowest in the nation — $41,752 in 2008-09, compared with $53,168 nationally — according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And Utah public schools, on average, spent the least per student that year on district administration costs: $68 per student, compared with $351 nationally.

The third lowest U.S. salaries likely make it difficult for Utah school districts to attract out-of-state candidates for superintendent slots, said Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. Nationally, he said, districts typically look outside their own ranks for a superintendent.

"The reason for that is a homegrown individual has never had the experience of being a superintendent," Domenech said. "That doesn't mean they can't do the job. At some point, every superintendent becomes a superintendent for the first time."

Along the Wasatch Front, from the Alpine to the Davis district, superintendents all moved up the ranks of their own, or neighboring, school districts to earn the top spot. David Doty is the only exception. He spent most of his career in higher education before becoming superintendent of Canyons, Utah's newest school district. When Granite School District picked a new superintendent last month to lead the state's largest district, all three finalists were Granite administrators.

In setting salaries and benefits, school boards typically keep in mind what's competitive along the Wasatch Front, not across the nation.

Alpine School District recently decided to adjust Superintendent Vernon Henshaw's salary to make it more competitive. Henshaw leads the state's third-largest district, but last year, he received the smallest compensation package among superintendents of Utah's five largest districts.

The Alpine Board of Education conducted a market analysis, comparing his pay with regional and national salaries. The board opted to give Henshaw a 5.3 percent raise for 2010-11, boosting his salary from $188,969 to $198,965, but still well below the national average.

"The bottom line is, we're competing with the Wasatch Front," said Board President Debbie Taylor. "People from out of state take one look [at Utah's per-pupil funding and large class sizes] and say, 'Never mind.' "

Taylor also said Henshaw was offered a raise to reward his "fabulous" performance and to encourage him to put off retirement.

This fall, Jordan's School Board will have to determine where to set the pay bar to attract a new superintendent to replace Newbold.

In Davis District, Superintendent Bryan Bowles is getting a 2.5 percent bump to his $162,489 base salary. (He also receives a car allowance, an annuity and is eligible for up to a 10 percent performance bonus.)

But the national trend indicates declining raises for superintendents, Domenech said. In 2009-10, administrators nationally saw the smallest jump in their pay rates in the past five years, according to surveys by Educational Research Service.

Jordan's Newbold did not take a raise this year after a 10 percent cut last year. In Canyons District, Doty's pay will drop 2 percent this year because all employees are taking five unpaid days off.

Outside Utah, other superintendents have taken pay cuts as an acknowledgment of tough economic times, including Clark County, Nev., Superintendent Walt Rulffes, who slashed his salary for the 308,000-student mega-district from $307,632 to $246,232 for the current school year.

Strains on superintendents' salaries are emerging as the school executives' jobs become more difficult, Domenech said.

"It's becoming almost an impossible job. You have to perform miracles," he said. "The parents want the best for their kids — and rightfully so. … But on the other hand, the economy takes away the financial resources needed to provide that. To try to keep clients happy in that kind of environment is incredibly difficult."

Not only do superintendents have to be educational leaders, Domenech said, they also have to be "great politicians" and "incredible managers."

Stephenson, the tax activist, said taxpayers would complain less about superintendents' salaries if districts could show that at least a portion of the pay was tied to improving education. He suggests bonuses tied to student test scores.

Among the Wasatch Front districts, only Salt Lake City and Davis offer a performance-based bonus to superintendents.

"What I have seen is that [superintendents are] paid regardless of how their schools perform," he said. "That's not how the business world operates for their CEOs."

Next year, Utah taxpayers could obtain the power to fire their superintendents.

Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, plans to propose a law that would allow residents of a school district to vote to retain — or oust — their superintendent.