September/October 2019

Superintendent Salaries: Data as a Piece of Art

By Lora Wolff and Denny Barr

Rarely would anyone other than a statistician consider a set of data to be a work of art. When the average person looks at a large data set, whether it be weather measures over time to prove or disprove climate change, returns on investment over time for stocks, or the compensation packages for superintendents in the state of Illinois, most would quickly get lost in the numbers and lose perspective on what those numbers really mean. However, just like a painting or a sculpture, data sets tell multiple and varied stories, depending on how a person looks at them.

Each year when we approach salary data, there is something new and different. The new and different this year was the data on full-time equivalency (FTE) for Illinois superintendents, which allowed for analysis on a more comparable level. The focus of this analysis is on superintendents with FTE of 0.9 or higher, with all other superintendent salaries excluded from the analysis. It is important to note that in previous years all superintendents were included in the analysis regardless of FTE. Including part-time superintendents, whose salaries could be assumed to have been on the lower end of the scale, decreased the average salary for all superintendents.

Because of the inclusion of FTE, we can draw a more accurate picture this year. Also because of this, making comparisons between 2018 data and previous years’ is cautioned.

During the 2017-2018 academic year, the most recent year for which data is available, there were 680 full-time superintendents and 189 part-time (with 0.1 to 0.89 FTE) superintendents  (see Table 1). In addition to the part-time superintendents, four superintendents were excluded from the analysis: the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice superintendent, the Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer, and two superintendents with salaries that were outliers (one with a full-time salary of $15,000 and one with a salary $100,000 higher than the next closest superintendent, and a salary/benefit package on the high end as well). Excluding these four superintendents also made for a more accurate analysis.

Superintendent Base Salaries
The base salaries of Illinois superintendents from 2014 through 2018 is presented (see Table 2). In each annual comparison, the median salary increased. In three of the four annual comparisons, superintendent salaries increased; in the other, from 2015 to 2016, the average salary was lower but by less than 1 percent. The 14.4 percent salary increase from 2017 to 2018, however, must be taken with caution, because, as stated, only full-time superintendents were included in the 2018 analysis. For the 680 full-time superintendents, the high salary was just over $300,000 (high school district), the average salary was $161,466 with the lowest salary of $71,400 (unit school district). 

When the reported benefits (bonuses, retirement, annuities, and other benefits) are included for full-time superintendents, both the high salary ($379,424) and average salary ($193,400) increased while the superintendent with the low salary remained the same (see Table 3). The high salary for the part-time superintendents ranged from a high of $220,000 to a low of $13,038. Salary and benefits for the part-time superintendents ranged from a low of $15,613 to a high of $251,978. Table 3 also shows the variable in the FTE and the resultant salaries that led to the exclusion of the part-time superintendents in the analysis.

Superintendent Base Salaries by District Type
Analysis of superintendent base salaries and base salaries plus benefits was done by district type: elementary, high school, and unit (see Table 4). For the elementary district superintendents, the high salary was $298,135 ($371,112 salary plus benefits). The average salary was $173,601 with the low salary of $78,064. The median salary of $174,431 ($207,831 salary plus benefits) was close to the average salary.

High school district superintendents, numbering 85, had the highest salaries in all four areas. The highest salary was $300,104 ($379,424 salary plus benefits), with an average salary of $190,897, the lowest salary of $101,418, and a median salary of $183,345 ($225,102 salary plus benefits).

The greatest variability in superintendent salaries when examined by district type was for the 317 unit district superintendents. The high base salary for unit superintendents was $290,038 (salary plus benefits $335,827). The low salary was $71,400 with an average salary of $149,932 (salary plus benefits $169,455). The median of unit district superintendents was $134,842 (salary plus benefits $159,803).

Base salaries were also compared at five percentiles (see Table 5) for three years. At all percentiles the 2018 superintendent salaries were higher in 2017. Again, this is likely due to the exclusion of the part-time superintendents.

Regional Base Salaries and Base Salaries/Benefits
An analysis of the 680 reported salaries was also conducted by six regions (see Figure 1): East Central, Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, Southwest, and West Central. The highest salary and salary plus benefits was in the Northeast region (see Table 6). The Northeast region also had the highest average salary and salary plus benefits. The East Central region had the lowest high salary, almost $100,000 lower than the Northeast region. The East Central region also had the lowest base salary of $71,400; that reported salary plus benefits was the same.

In presenting elementary district superintendent salaries (high salary and average salary) for three years by the six regions (see Table 7), two regions (Northeast and Southeast) had lower high salaries in 2018 than in prior years. Again, readers are cautioned that the higher 2018 average salaries are likely due to the exclusion of 189 part-time superintendent salaries. 
Superintendent salaries for high school districts are similar to elementary districts, with the Northeast region posting the highest salary and highest average salary. However, the Southeast region saw a decline in the high salary of over $23,000 and the Northeast region also had a decrease in the high salary. The Southwest region had no change in the high salary. 

The final analysis was for unit district superintendents by region. All regions saw an increase in the 2018 high salary over 2017. All regions except the Southeast region saw higher high salaries in 2018 than in 2016. Average unit superintendent salaries were also higher in 2018 in all regions; however, part-time salaries were not included in 2018.

Whether or not our superintendent salary studies can be considered a work of art is probably up for debate. However, just like a person viewing a painting or sculpture, each person comes to the data with a background and perspective, creates an interpretation, and then applies it to a unique set of local factors and priorities. We’ll leave further interpretation of the superintendent salary artwork up to the reviewer. 

Authors’ notes
From 1995 to 2007, researchers at Western Illinois University collected and compiled data on the salaries of district superintendents and principals in Illinois. The Illinois School Board Journal published a study of that voluntarily submitted data. With the introduction of mandatory reporting of administrator salaries, the data was unavailable for several years. In 2014, the Illinois State Board of Education made its data available to researchers. Since then, the series has resumed. The full series and resources associated with this article are available via the Journal resources page at
Thanks to Jackie Matthews, ISBE Director of Media and External Communications and ISBE’s data analysis division for providing the raw data. Thanks to Jordan Arndt and Karolyn Ericksen, graduate assistants at Western Illinois University, for sorting the data.

Lora Wolff, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Educational Leadership at Western Illinois University and was previously superintendent for Keokuk Community Schools in Iowa. Denny Barr, Ed.D., is an assistant professor of Educational Leadership at Western Illinois University and the graduate program coordinator for the M.S.Ed. in Educational Leadership and principal endorsement programs in the Educational Studies Department.