By Steve Gunn
and Ashleigh Costello
ORLANDO, Fla. – There’s no doubt that Ronald Blocker was a well-respected superintendent at Orange County Public Schools. And he certainly was well paid for his efforts, particularly when he retired in June.
Blocker received total compensation of more than $2.9 million during his 12 years as superintendent, including $2.8 million in salary and $147,385 in performance incentive payments. That averages out to annual compensation of slightly more than $241,667.
His retirement was particularly lucrative. He walked away with an unused sick day reimbursement payment of $135,788, a tax-sheltered annuity payment of $114,000 and an annual leave payment of $9,208. We’re guessing he’s not counting on Social Security to get him through his golden years.
Those numbers are surfacing at a time when many school officials and citizens throughout the nation are questioning unusually large salaries and benefits for top public school administrators.
Should superintendents lead by example?
Critics point out that public schools everywhere are all but broke, with many being forced to make painful budget cuts that negatively affect student instruction.
School boards across the nation have repeatedly asked employee unions to make contract concessions to conserve operating dollars, only to hand out big salaries, expensive benefits and fat retirement checks to top administrators.
Critics believe those at the top have a moral responsibility to set an example for employees. If one type of employee must sacrifice for the sake of students, everyone should sacrifice something.
Some school boards and superintendents understand that. Administrators (including the superintendent) in the Council Rock, Pennsylvania school district recently agreed to a pay freeze for the third time in four years, saving the district about $90,000 this year.
But other administrators keep raking in the dough during tough times, drawing criticism from the public and some people in high places.
Last year Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman criticized the annual $413,000 salary paid to Omaha school Superintendent John Mackiel. And this week Heineman blasted the $1 million severance payment Machiel received when he retired in June.
While Blocker never earned that type of money, he certainly did quite well for himself.
His initial contract, signed in 2000, gave Blocker an annual salary (with benefits) of $180,000; free health, dental, vision and life insurance plus other flexible benefits; $8,000 per year toward payment of premiums for an individual cash building life or term insurance policy; $1,200 per year for payment of premiums for an individual disability insurance policy; an annual contribution of $9,500 toward a tax-sheltered annuity; an annual performance bonus not to exceed 10 percent of his salary; $500 per month for the use of a school vehicle; and $500 per month to compensate for various costs in the performance of his duties.
Those dollar figures have multiplied over the years. At the time of his retirement, Blocker was receiving an annual salary (including benefits) of $280,700, which was $100,000 more than his starting salary in 2000. Over his tenure he received $147,385 in performance bonuses, $96,000 for his individual life or term insurance policy, $72,000 for his car allowance and $14,400 for his disability income insurance.
He walked out the door with checks for $135,788 for unused sick days, $114,000 for his tax-sheltered annuity and $9,208 in annual leave payments. The unused sick days payments were computed based on Blocker’s final salary, even though many of the unused sick days were from years when he made significantly less.
That’s how it goes in public education (and government in general), when elected officials open their hearts and checkbooks and generously disperse our tax dollars.
Good administrator, tough economic times
Of course, a lot of people believed Blocker deserved every penny he received after successfully overseeing the nation’s 10th largest school district, which includes 218 schools and more than 173,000 students.
Blocker has been largely credited with improving academics in the district, leading to three “A” ratings from the state of Florida and a more recent “B” rating.
He was guest of honor at a gala retirement dinner at the posh Rosen Shingle Creek Resort, with testimonials by VIPS like U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and others. Following his departure the school board renamed the district’s administrative building the Ronald Blocker Educational Leadership Center.
But the Orange County district was not always financially healthy during Blocker’s tenure.
A major financial disaster was avoided in 2010 when voters approved a $320 million tax increase over four years, according to news reports. Even with that cash infusion, the district would have faced a $25 million budget deficit this year if the school board had refused to use the district’s cash savings account to balance its budget.
So how does a school that came so close to the financial edge justify paying a single administrator so much money? And how does it justify paying Blocker’s successor, Dr. Barbara Jenkins, a starting base salary of $230,000?
School board Chairman Bill Sublette declined to answer that question, telling us “You sound like a pretty radical organization, so I’m going to have to decline. If you were a mainstream press organization here in our state or community, I’d be happy to talk to you.”
So asking elected officials about the questionable use of tax money makes us a “pretty radical organization.” If so, we happily accept that label.
If there were more radicals like us, perhaps government school districts wouldn’t get away with wasting so much of the public’s hard-earned money.