Superintendent earns raise, praise, $50K

Seth Jovaag

Unified Newspaper Group

Verona’s superintendent got a 2.5 percent pay raise last week and will earn a sizable bonus in July.

The Verona Area school board voted unanimously last Monday that Dean Gorrell will be paid $143,000 for the 2012-13 school year, retroactive to July 1, when his previous contract expired. His base salary was $139,500. The raise mirrors what staff got last spring and puts Gorrell’s annual salary near the average for Dane County superintendents.

However, under a previous contract, Gorrell will also earn a $50,000 incentive payment into a retirement account on July 1 that rewards him for staying four years with the district since 2009.

A similar deal applies in this contract, except that it will be paid in four $12,500  installments each June 15, provided he stays here, said board member Ken Behnke, chair of the board’s personnel committee.

The board first offered the incentive in 2005, when Gorrell, now 50, took over the district’s top job. His initial contract included a $40,000 bonus paid into a retirement account after four years.

The goal of the bonuses has been to keep Gorrell for the long haul, said board president Dennis Beres.

“The board is very supportive of the work he’s done,” Beres said. “It would be very difficult to lose his leadership and have to replace him.”

Behnke added that the board is “very pleased with (Gorrell’s) performance.”

Bonuses more common

Gorrell’s eight-year tenure in Verona exceeds the norm, as roughly one-fifth of Wisconsin’s 426 school districts hire a new superintendent each year, said Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Districts.

With districts competing for a limited number of candidates, more are turning to incentives or bonuses to retain superintendents, Turner said. He likens it to how private companies reward good CEOs. He added that a CEO overseeing “a multi-million dollar corporation” with hundreds of employees could easily earn seven figures.

A national job search could cost a district like Verona $15,000 or more, Turner said. But that doesn’t account for the hidden costs of changing leaders and the “unknown element” of how well a new hire will fit, he said.

“If you talk to search firms, they’ll tell you it’s hard to find qualified candidates,” Turner said. “It’s not a very popular position. It’s a high-stress, high-challenge position.”

Districts offer a variety of bonuses that don’t always show up in base salaries. For example, some districts offer vehicle stipends.

Madison offered a similar lump-sum bonus as Gorrell’s to its former superintendent, Dan Nerad, and Monona Grove offered its superintendent a $150,000 retirement account payment, spread over five years, if he stays through 2017, according to a story last year in the Wisconsin State Journal.

Many districts are “turning to incentives to hold on to good administrators,” Turner said.

‘Moving forward’

The new contract also frees Gorrell to take up to 10 days of paid leave annually for professional development, consulting or other education-related activities, Behnke said.

That change is “mutually beneficial,” Behnke said, because it can expose Gorrell to new ideas in other districts or in education in general.

Behnke said there was “no controversy” over the contract but that it was delayed for months as the board dealt with other pressing matters. It includes two one-year extensions lasting until July 1, 2015, though salary terms are negotiated annually and tend to mirror what employees receive.

Gorrell’s tenure has included the addition of a new school (Glacier Edge Elementary), two new charter schools (Verona Area International School opened in 2010; the Exploration Academy will open this fall) and the launch of 4-year-old kindergarten last year. In his eight years, the district has increased its reserve funds and avoided going to referendum despite statewide cuts to education, Beres noted.

Beres specifically lauded Gorrell’s recent efforts to spur a multi-year district-wide plan to “personalize education” for every student. The ambitious undertaking is meant to tackle a persistent “achievement gap” between white, wealthier students and students of color or from low-income homes in Verona. It’s indicative that Gorrell is “moving the district forward,” Beres said.

“I think taxpayers will be well served by the degree of raise he got compared to the value that he brings,” he said.

Gorrell said he hears criticism “from time to time” about his salary.

“I am very grateful to the Board and taxpayers of the Verona Area School District for this generous compensation package,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Verona Press. “Moreover, I am grateful to the Board, staff, students and community for the awesome working conditions here. This is a great district to work in and be a part of.”

Superintendent pay
VASD paid its superintendent less than most Dane County school districts in 2012. But figures don’t include benefits or other incentives, such as the $50,000 bonus Dean Gorrell will receive in July for fulfilling a four-year “longevity clause” built into his 2009 contract.
                            2012 salary         Enrollment
Madison                $201,437**                 26,817
Oregon                    $155,900                   3,718
Mid.-Cross Plains    $155,675                   6,446
Monona Grove        $154,652                    3,121
DeForest                 $146,243                   3,465
Sun Prairie              $145,036                    7,095
Waunakee               $140,559                   3,874  
Mt. Horeb                $140,355                    2,352  
McFarland               $136,503                    3,260  
Verona                $136,500***                    4,892
Stoughton               $135,000                     3,333

VASD teacher average    $56,819

Source: Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction
*enrollment is from 2011-12
** new Madison superintendent Jennifer Cheatham will be paid $235,000 this year. Other 2013 data not available.
*** annual salary increased to $139,500 partway into 2012.

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