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A look at the whys and hows of executive pay at charter schools

A hotly-debated topic in the larger battle between charter school advocates and those who oppose their expansion is the question of executive pay. How much is too much for a charter school chief executive officer?

Though charter schools are privately operated, they receive public funding, which opens them up to criticism when their CEOs and CFOs receive high six-figure salaries.

One interesting case study is Harlem Village Academies, a network of charter schools founded by Deborah Kenny in 2001, which operates three charter schools — two middle schools and one high school — in Harlem. According to an analysis done by Kim Gittleson, Kenny also happens to be one of the mostly highly-paid charter executives in the city, second only to Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children Zone charter schools.

Like all charter schools, Kenny’s schools are privately operated but receive public funding, opening her up to criticism that her salary far exceeds what traditional public school administrators earn. This year, Kenny’s base salary, excluding her pension and expense account, is $275,000. She also has the opportunity, as she has every year, to earn a year-end bonus of $150,000 if her schools do well, putting her total salary at a potential $425,000.

Ed Lewis, chairman of the board for Harlem Village Academies, said Kenny’s salary is entirely paid by the board and private contributions.

“She’s not being paid out of funds from the public,” Lewis said. “She’s being paid by private funding and I think the individuals who have given money to the charter school clearly understand that in order to maintain and to try and provide the continuing best results, we need to attract and keep and compensate people, particularly if they perform. She’s just been sterling at getting results.”

Lewis said that comparing Kenny’s salary to what traditional public school principals or superintendents make is unfair, as those positions don’t come with the job requirement of connecting with donors and raising funds to support the schools’ survival.

“It’s all part of the effort to attract fundraisers who are interested in the concept of providing the best service for our kids,” Lewis said. “Deborah has this ability to attract and reach out to a variety of people. What she is paid is quite appropriate.”

Peter Murphy, policy director for the New York Charter Schools Association, said it’s difficult to object to charter CEOs’ salaries, as they have raised the money that goes to paying them.

“What charter schools have brought into the public education world is the educational-entrepreneur, who takes enormous risks, works killer hours and brings new ideas and investors into public education,” Murphy said. “They’re paying their own salaries by raising ten fold or a hundred fold what they get paid themselves.”

Kenny’s starting salary was $140,000 with a possible bonus of $40,000, Lewis said, adding that she did not receive a raise for five years. Last year, her salary was frozen because of the economic downturn and the difficulties the charter organization faced in raising money.

Asked what prompts debate about charter CEOs’ salaries, Lewis attributed the criticism to jealousy.

The teachers union and charter school opponents “are going to try and protect their turf,” Lewis said. “So if you have the possibility of a new competitor in the market place who is bringing in results, then you’re going to get a reaction.”

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