Education

Wichita lawmaker asks superintendent to explain top-level salaries — including her own

Superintendent of Wichita public schools rides the bus with students

Alicia Thompson, superintendent of Wichita public schools, rode the bus with students to Minneha Elementary on the first day of school. (Aug. 15, 2018)
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Alicia Thompson, superintendent of Wichita public schools, rode the bus with students to Minneha Elementary on the first day of school. (Aug. 15, 2018)

Wichita Superintendent Alicia Thompson faced pointed questions from a state lawmaker Thursday about her salary and the school district’s overall spending on administration.

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, sparked a heated back-and-forth when he asked Thompson to explain why the district spends what it does — about $68 million a year — on administration and support, which includes school principals and assistant principals as well as district-level administrators.

Carmichael said in the meeting that the district spends 20 percent of its overall budget on administration, which is not correct according to budget documents. He later said he misread a budget chart.

The Wichita district spends about 11 percent of its overall budget on administration and support — a category that includes supplies, professional development and other costs in addition to salaries.

“Could the superintendent educate us a little bit more about what the amount of those salaries are for the highest-ranking folks, like yourself . . . and why those salaries are as high as they appear to laypersons to be?” Carmichael said.

Thompson, who is in her second year at the helm of the state’s largest school district, makes $266,864 a year. In addition to her base salary, she receives a $780-a-month car and mileage allowance, $525 a month for “professional, civic and incidental expenses” and an annual contribution to her retirement, which brings her total financial package to $307,534 a year.

“What I can tell you, sir, is that my contract is negotiated with the Board of Education,” Thompson said. “That salary also is inclusive of retirement. When you see that large number, you dig inside of it, it’s not salary that I take home.”

“What would you consider to be your salary and what would you consider to be the value of your benefit package, so I can better make that distinction?” Carmichael countered.

“Sir, if you would like to visit with me privately or with my board, we would be happy to visit with you,” Thompson said. “But I am saying to you that my salary is commensurate to some of the other urban school districts in the country.”

“Is it a secret?” Carmichael said.

At that point, Rep. Susan Humphries, R-Wichita, who moderated Thursday’s panel discussions, broke in and asked Thompson and other superintendents to send salary information to lawmakers to review.

The exchange happened during a meeting of the South Central Kansas Legislative Delegation, in which Thompson and four other area superintendents addressed lawmakers about education issues in advance of this year’s legislative session.

In an interview following the exchange, Carmichael said he posed the question to give Thompson a chance to explain the importance of building- and district-level administrators, which he says some constituents and colleagues regularly criticize.

“My purpose was to give the superintendent an opportunity to explain in a public forum why the numbers are what they are,” Carmichael said.

“Administration and support — those are necessary to running a school district,” he said. “It was my hope that the superintendent would have explained to us why those numbers are so high so that, quite frankly, I can look across the table at some of my more conservative colleagues and say, ‘There’s your explanation.’

“But much to my surprise, I didn’t get the explanation. I got an evasion, so it’s unfortunate.”

Wendy Johnson, spokeswoman for the Wichita district, said Thompson would have been able to address the question “had the source of data been clearly referenced.”

“The fact is that the state budget form for our total budget indicates 11 percent expenditure on all ‘administration and support,’ not 20 percent as was stated,” Johnson said in an e-mail Thursday.

“In an effort to be fully transparent, when we report on our budget we break that figure apart to illustrate that the bulk of it is spent on school administration, then business support services, with 1 percent being spent on general administration,” Johnson said.

Sheril Logan, president of the Wichita school board, said Thompson’s salary isn’t the highest for a superintendent in Kansas, even though Wichita is the state’s largest district, with more than 50,000 students.

Thompson “has worked to improve district culture, create innovative programming that supports student success, and indeed impacts the future of our community and our state,” Logan said.

Wichita school officials often face criticism about administrative costs. During last year’s gubernatorial campaign, Republican candidate Kris Kobach claimed incorrectly during a debate that a Wichita high school had a dozen assistant principals.

Susan Arensman, spokeswoman for the Wichita district, said more than 87 percent of the district’s operating budget “directly supports students in classrooms and schools,” including teachers, counselors, nurses, technology, food service, textbooks, utilities and transportation.

School administrators — principals and assistant principals, along with clerical staff and office-related expenditures — account for about 6 percent of the district’s overall budget, she said. District-level administration comprises another 1 percent.

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