Opinion: Nuances of School Superintendents’ Leadership Go Beyond Salaries

By Christopher MacPhee


Alberta is home to one of the top-performing education systems in the world and that is something we should all be proud of.

It is unfortunate that observers of our education system often fail to recognize the pivotal role played by our educational system leaders, including superintendents, who have dedicated their lives to overseeing and managing the schools where our children thrive.

A flurry of recent public commentary, sparked by a report commissioned by the Alberta School Boards Association (ABSA), would lead many to believe our educational leaders are overpaid compared to their counterparts in other provinces and are somehow earning wages they are not entitled to. When the College of Alberta School Superintendents (CASS) identified a number of factual and/or mathematical errors in ASBA’s report, a revised version was released on Feb. 22.

Unfortunately, by that time, the initial erroneous report resulted in public comments questioning the salaries of superintendents and a Calgary Herald editorial entitled, “School superintendents earn too much.”

By stating “salaries for superintendents in the province of Alberta are significantly higher than those of Ontario, Saskatchewan and British Columbia” in the original report, the author(s) demonstrated a lack of understanding that in Ontario and Saskatchewan the CEO of a school authority has the title of director, not superintendent. In essence, the author(s) were comparing apples to oranges.

A review of the public sector salary disclosure for Ontario suggests the average salary for directors of education in 2016 was $199,341. The average salary for directors in Saskatchewan, as stated in a 2017 Regina Leader-Post and Saskatoon StarPhoenix investigative report was $206,027. A calculation, using the ASBA Management Compensation Report (2017), determines the average salary for superintendents in 2015/16 to be $202,794, allowing one to conclude the salaries of the CEOs of school authorities in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario are very similar.

It would appear the author(s), recognizing their conclusions in the original report were based on false information, decided to shift the focus in the revised report by stating, “Maximum salaries for superintendents in the province of Alberta are significantly higher than those in Ontario, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.”

This emphasis, in combination with the decision by the author(s) to focus the comparative analysis solely on salary and not total compensation, is at best, a very poor research methodology. While salary is a major component of total compensation for senior executive positions in all sectors, it is certainly not the only component. An individual may choose to accept a lower salary in lieu of other forms of compensation such as supplemental pension plan contributions, support for professional learning, retiring benefits, a vehicle allowance, or provision for relocation. By purposefully highlighting only one aspect of compensation, the report demonstrates a clear lack of sophistication.

School boards must consider a number of variances, not mentioned by the report, when recruiting a superintendent. These include location related to a metro or urban centre, and the cost of living within a community. Further, superintendent appointments and contracts are already subject to approval by the minister, and provisions in superintendent contracts are subject to legislation that does not apply to contracts for other executive positions in the public or private sector.

Finally, more than a quarter of public, separate and francophone school authorities were appointed between 2010-2014. Some school authorities start new superintendents at a salary significantly lower than the retiring or leaving incumbent, suggesting the salary will increase after 2-3 years. Such increases to more than a quarter of all superintendents may be the reason for the apparent statistical increase in salaries over the five-year period identified in the revised report.

Superintendents of school authorities in Alberta hold positions of tremendous responsibility, in some cases overseeing annual operating budgets in excess of $1 billion. In many municipalities across Alberta, the school authority is either the largest, or among the largest, employer. None of this is to say that our members disagree with accountability and transparency around their compensation, but rather, it is an effort to better educate those interested in the topic and accounting for the nuances of educational leadership that extend far beyond numbers.

Christopher MacPhee is the president of the College of Alberta School Superintendents (CASS) and the Superintendent of Schools for Canadian Rockies Public Schools.