Let's provide free housing for our new Superintendent

If anyone had any illusions about how unimportant having the right Superintendent for our school system is, those have been dashed by recent developments. I'll bet everyone now knows that we need a top candidate to lead our system and "second best" won't do.

Unfortunately, the recent abrupt departure of Glenn Brand, without any believable public explanation, has cast a cloud over our District. Maybe, one day, the public will learn what happened and maybe it is nothing bad. But not knowing will make people assume the worst, and that could prove a huge barrier in attracting top candidates to even apply.

If the chaos and turmoil does not abate, it could cause far more damage to our school system and even seep into economic damage to our homeowners, in the form of lower home values and higher taxes. Most new residents of our towns come because of our school system and we all take this for granted. We won't anymore if the school system is perceived to have dropped a few notches.

So we need to think outside the box to come up with some creative solutions. I'd like to propose that we establish a housing fund, housing subsidy, or even go so far as to purchase a "Superintedent's residence" that future Superintendents can live in, in order to make our opening so attractive that we will have the best group of candidates ever who apply to fill our vacancy.

Residences are very common on college campuses, and are used to help compensate top administrators outside of salaries and benefits. They also serve a bonus purpose of making it easy and convenient for the top administrators to stay engaged with the school and the community because they live right there. With our late-night meetings and early-morning start, we might have a direct benefit by having our School leader living on or near the main campus.

Acton and Boxborough have very high housing costs, as does the entire state in general. We will be urging the School Committee to have a robust, nationwide search for a new Superintendent, and we hope to attract candidates from afar to apply, and may be asking our top pick to move here from out of state. I don't know if we have ever had to consider such expenses like reimbursement for travel to interview or moving expenses, but all those one-time costs should be offered to make it as easy as possible for someone to pursue this opportunity from afar.

We have two possible problems that can be addressed through the idea of free housing. First, we balance out the cloud hanging over our communities with such an appealing compensation package that top candidates would be foolish not to apply for the opening, despite perhaps having some reservations and questions about our current vacancy. Second, we squarely confront our high cost of living, which is answered by an attractive salary (which we already offer) but is then supplemented by a much lower cost of housing, surely a high barrier for candidates considering the move to Massachusetts from many other parts of the country.

A housing allowance could be tailored by the difference in cost of living, depending on where the successful candidate is from. But a housing allowance might cost more in the long run versus purchasing an asset up front with a relatively modest annual cost. Plus, a cash housing allowance is very easy to just add to the salary offered to figure out the total compensation. Free housing could be perceived as having a higher value with less hassle and be considered more prestigious.

If we provide an official residence, and an outside candidate compares Acton-Boxborough's Superintendent position with any other in the country, we will look fantastic. What other local communities so value their educational system that they have invested in a residence for their school leader?

So let's say we go all the way and decide to buy a million-dollar house and offer it as a free residence to our Superintendent. The annual maintenance and taxes are peanuts to our school district, and we probably already have town or school land (or maybe even actual houses) that is sitting vacant if we wanted to use it for this purpose. (We could build a residence and rent something short-term while the building is going on.) But even if we had to pay cash up front, this is a very modest investment to get a superstar Superintendent relative to, say, our new elementary school building projects, which are estimated in the $250 million range.

I like saving money and keeping expenses down. But the circumstances have drastically changed and we now have a very serious problem. We need a serious solution.

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Relatively low salaries in Mass. may be reason for high turnover

Allen Nitschelm and I had a debate about this one when we were doing our last Open Letter to the School Committee (of June 12, read at the June 13 meeting). We decided not to put in specifics in our request that the School Committee offer its new Superintentendent a "more attractive" compensation package. I think we both wanted, as did others who were a part of our drafting process, for the SC to be williing to consider raising the salary itself. But I also wanted us to propose the SC think about contract terms longer than three years (as some other systems have done, up to 5 or even 6 years in some cases), and Allen wanted to offer some particularly generous housing benefits. Allen was very vocal about his housing idea - which he fleshes out in the article above,but which I had not read at that time - that we should offer a huge housing incentive to attract people from other parts of the country where housing costs are not as high. I was not so convinced, as I tend to look at housing costs as something that should automatically affect the salary range within a given community. I assumed that salaries for superintendents were generally and strongly correlated with the overall costs of living in given areas. Thus we initially had a list of ways, including these two, to sweeten the deal, in order to be sure we get a truly good pool of candidates nationwide. However, we ultimately decided as a group that it would be wiser to settle for the general "more attractive compensation package" language, and not get too much into the weeds. Since then, I not only read Allen's article (above) but also I did a quick bit of "research" (the kind you can do online in half an hour, lol). I found the differences between average salaries for school superintendents in lower-cost areas around the country and average salaries for superintendents here in Massachusetts appear not nearly as great as I had imagined. I found some evidence, for example, that the average school superintendent salary in Iowa is similar to that of Massachusetts; specifically it was around $150K per year in Iowa then, and about $170K per year in Massachusetts in that year. But when I used the cost-of-living comparison tool at bestplaces.net, it told me that the cost of living in the Boston area is 105 percent greater than in Des Moines, with housing costs 318 percent greater, and that a salary of $150K per year in Des Moines would be equivalent to a salary of $308K in Boston. $308K is far more than we, and most suburban school districts in the expensive Greater Boston area, have been paying. However, interestingly enough, that is not true for the school district which I have most liked to use as a model with which to compare our own district - that is, Lexington. The school system in Lexington is now paying their superintendent around $300K. I still tend to favor the idea of a higher overall salary, rather than targeted housing benefits (in large degree, because it's much simpler if you do not have to offer different deals to those already local and those far away, as Allen suggests), and also still like my idea of at least considering the offer of a slightly longer contract term than we have done in the past (say, four to six years rather than three). But now, I better appreciate Allen's general point about the necessity of considering the fact that high housing costs will likely be a deterrent to many applicants in other parts of the country. All of this brings me to my final point. The big turnover among Superintendents in Massachusetts is most certainly related to the relatively low salaries - when accounting for the cost of living and especially housing - in Massachusetts. That has been the view of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, and they are probably right. See the following article for a bit more on this: http://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2016/09/turnover_high_among_massachuse.html
Steve Ballard


Excellent idea. I believe, however, in short order -- if not immediately -- the housing will be added to the current salary as a perk and not a component of the office's salary.

Are you serious?

I am appalled to hear that the community is trying to appease a potential candidate with a whopping salary of $170k and tell them they cannot find suitable housing in Acton? What type of lifestyle are we talking here? I don't mind moving package or paying realtor fee for selling current house etc.. I have never heard in any other industry of providing free housing and still pay $170k? This town citizens seem to be way out of their way to even proposing such drastic perk. $170 k is way above the: Household Income $142,940 Median Household Income $108,691 Are we expecting our superintendent live in $1M home? Sorry but enough taxation citizens must curb expenses for themselves or you will soon see exodus to other "reasonable' towns around. Thx

Housing need only be given to candidates who must move

That is one reason why housing might be a better solution, because we may not need to use such an incentive for a nearby candidate. But asking someone to move from far away, where the cost of living is probably lower, might make the position a lot more attractive. And in the future, it would be easier to stop the housing allowance than to reduce the salary. So those are two good reasons to offer this "perk" versus just a salary increase. But I agree, most serious candidates will add up the value of the housing with the salary. Still, the offer should be very attractive to all the potential candidates. Thanks for writing, Allen

Allen Nitschelm has lived in Acton since 1998 and writes about fiscal issues at the
local and state level. He is a former member of the town's Finance Committee
and is an Associate Publisher of Acton Forum.