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One State Board of Education Member’s Crusade Against Fat-Cat Charter Schools

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State Board of Education Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff (R-Mount Pleasant)
State Board of Education Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff (R-Mount Pleasant)

Dr. David Fuller earns $125,000 a year as superintendent of the new C.O.R.E. Academy charter school in Houston. His school has 74 students this year. Do the math: He makes $1,689 per student.

Fuller’s former business partner, Kevin Hicks, earns $248,000 as superintendent of Houston’s Accelerated Intermediate Academy. The charter school, which Fuller and Hicks founded together in 2001, now serves 250 students. $992 per student.

Ollie Hilliard, superintendent of Jamie’s House Charter School in Houston, earns $123,000 to run a school of 131 students—though she may not for much longer. Hers is one of six charters now slated for closure after years of poor performance. In 2001, the state closed another Hilliard project—a residential facility for foster children, also called Jamie’s House—due to health and safety risks. Today, Hilliard makes $939 per student.

Per student, they are the three best-paid charter school superintendents in the state. And though he won’t single them out by name, State Board of Education Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff says some Texas charters pay their leaders far too much, with little public input to hold them accountable.

Earlier this month, he laid out his concerns in a letter to fellow board members, noting that the 10 best-paid charter school leaders earned $79.74 per student, while the top 10 superintendents at traditional public schools earned  $6.39 per student. Ratliff called on the Legislature or the commissioner of education to rein in the top salaries at charter schools:

“I find it ironic that charter schools were supposed to bring free market principals into the education marketplace but they are obviously paying way above free market rates for their superintendents. I would also like to point out that these entities are supposed to be non-profit organizations, but at these salary levels, some people are clearly doing quite well.”

A little more irony: Ratliff’s father, former state Sen. Bill Ratliff, wrote the law that first allowed charter schools in Texas in the mid-’90s.

“I’m not anti-charter,” the younger Ratliff tells the Observer this week. “There are some very good charters and I think there are some kids’ lives that have been saved because of some good charters. But I think the majority of charters are mediocre at best, and they graft off the good press and goodwill from a lot of the best ones.”

Ratliff says what he wants is an honest accounting of how much charter schools spend on their students, and a more open process for setting top administrators’ pay. Each charter school has a board that sets salaries, just like any traditional school district. But most charter board meetings aren’t well publicized or attended, so much of their business happens quietly. Ratliff suggests requiring that half the seats on a charter school board go to parents. “If I’m a parent of a kid in the charter school,” Ratliff says, “and I have a vote on whether to pay our superintendent $250,000 a year for 250 kids, I know how I’m gonna vote every time.”

Partly because charters’ operations can be so opaque, most debate about charter schools tends to treat them like a monolithic group. But the differences from one charter to the next run far deeper than between traditional school districts.

Three more examples:

  • Tom Torkelson makes $299,000 a year running the well-respected and growing IDEA Public Schools network, with 15 schools serving 15,535 students. IDEA supplements its state funding with major foundation grants.
  • Honors Academy superintendent John Dodd makes $250,000 a year heading a single school in Dallas with 759 students. The state is closing his school for poor performance.
  • Westlake Academy Charter School—one of the best schools in the state—serves some of Texas’ poshest neighborhoods, doesn’t provide bus transportation from outside, and supplements its state funding with a $2,000 recommended annual donation from parents. But the school doesn’t pay its superintendent Tom Brymer at all, because he makes his salary as Westlake’s town manager.

As part of the big charter school reforms the Legislature passed last year, charters are now required to post their superintendents’ salaries on their websites. A quick look around shows that many still haven’t done that—but most report their salaries to the Texas Education Agency. An Observer analysis of that data, with some extra reporting to fill in a few gaps, shows that charter superintendents do tend to make more, per student, than their traditional district counterparts:

Distribution of superintendent salaries, as a percentage of total charter or traditional school districts.
Source: Texas Education Agency/Texas Observer
Distribution of superintendent salaries, as a percentage of total charter or traditional school districts.

The Texas Charter Schools Association made a similar analysis of charter superintendent salaries, charting the total number of districts in each salary range. Comparing charters to ISDs that way, says the group’s executive director David Dunn, you’ll see “the distribution among salaries is very similar. … Rather than overreacting to specific cases, you really do need to look at the patterns that are established.”

Overall, charter schools get less money per student than ISDs because they don’t get money for school buildings (a group of charter schools has sued to change that). And, Dunn notes, the state holds charter schools to financial accountability measures that ISDs don’t have.

State Board of Education member Dana Bahorich replied to Ratliff’s note about salaries earlier this month with one of her own, noting that some traditional school districts pay far more than others per student, too. Comparing the median salaries in charter and traditional districts of under 5,000 students, she finds the two sectors aren’t so far off: “about $9,000 for charters and $103,000 for ISDs.”

“There are some variances and outliers in both sectors, but I just don’t see a problem necessitating government regulation over superintendents’ salaries,” she writes, in either charters or traditional schools.

Anyway, says Dunn, nobody’s salary ought to matter as much as whether the schools are helping students. “The key here is outcomes: Are we delivering outcomes for kids, and [do] parents have an opportunity to make choices so they can get he best educational program for their student?”

But Ratliff—who has since fired a second volley of criticism focused on charters’ overall money management—says if more people knew how some charter schools were spending public money, there’d be more of an outcry to fix the system. “I don’t think anybody realizes what kind of money folks are pulling in in these so-called nonprofits,” he says.

Patrick Michels is a reporter for the Texas Observer and a former legislative intern. He has been a staff writer and web editor at the Dallas Observer, and a former editor of the Texas Independent. He has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, and is a competitive eating enthusiast.

  • 1bimbo

    competition, accountability and higher standards in an exclusive charter school… i’m for it

  • ★ StaceinTexas ★™

    Hypocritical! 2011-2012 Where was ineligible Thomas Ratliff then?

    COLLIN COUNTY PLANO ISDOTTO, DOUGLAS $291,717.00 TOTAL: $392,462.00