Aug. 24, 2011 -- When a headline starts, "School Official Gives Himself a Hefty..." the next word is usually "Raise."
But in Fresno County, Calif., School Superintendent Larry Powell gave himself a hefty pay cut.
On Aug. 31, Powell will retire and then be hired back to fill the remainder of his four year term, reducing his now $250,000 annual salary to $31,020. The move will add over $800,000 to county schools over the next three years.
"My wife and I are very well compensated. We've been very blessed...I've been in this business for 41 and a half years and these are tight budget times in California for public schools," Powell said. "My wife and I thought, what can we do that might help change the dynamic in my particular area."
Powell, 63, said that over the last three years his county has lost $1,600 to $1,900 in funding per student. There are 195,000 students in Fresno County and 356 schools.
"Fresno…has been labeled the Appalachia of the West. We're like a bar bell, we have extreme wealth and extreme poverty…there's no shortage of need locally," he said.
Fresno School Official Gives Himself a Big Pay Cut
Powell and his wife, Dot, began investigating and realized that with Powell's pension and her retirement benefits from working as a school principal, they had plenty to live off of without his full salary. So, Powell approached the board of education about letting him retire early and then rehiring him to fill the three years and four months remaining in his term as superintendent.
"It's a unique arrangement that I'm in and it allows me to give something back to the community in a tangible way and I don't think of it as being a hero at all. It was a perfect opportunity to do something where the public benefits, the taxpayer benefits…the taxpayer saves between $150,000 and $160,000 in reduced costs, the county receives $830,000."
Powell's positive actions follow a slew of scandals over the past year in California that highlighted the seemingly huge salaries of officials in the state's public sector. In July of last year, outrage erupted in Bell, Calif., at the revelation that the city manager made nearly $1 million a year. Last month, it was revealed that California's highest paid employee was a prison surgeon who no longer treated patients. That surgeon made over $777,000.
"Taxpayers appreciate this move, and we hope it inspires others to do more to reduce education costs in ways that don't have any negative impact on students," said David Kline, spokesman for the California Taxpayer's Association.
Chris Mathys, the manager of the Valley Taxpayer's Coalition in Fresno, said that his association hopes that Powell's pay cut inspires other public officials.
"That's the exact kind of thing that we need. What we're not seeing enough of is public servants coming forward and saying you've had to tighten your belt in private sector, your 401ks are shrinking," Mathys said. "When people like Mr. Powell come forward and are willing to take the personal cut..when it's your own wallet, your own household, then that really shows you're sincere about your efforts."
Powell said that he too had become outraged at headlines in places like like Bell, Calif.
"I was particularly disappointed in what happened in Bell because I also happen to be a Baptist minister and ethics and treating people well is important to me and I wanted to make a sort of a statement, but without poking anyone in the eye. There are some of us out there that will do things differently than others did," Powell said.
School Super Reverses Trend: Gives Himself a Hefty Pay Cut
The extra $830,000 that the county will gain from his salary cut will be held in a reserve fund and used if mid-year budget cuts occur. Powell hopes the money can be saved for a rainy day, but if more budget cuts occur, he plans to use them on the programs that are nearest to his heart and the most in danger.
"The programs that are particularly important are transition kindergarten and preschool....AVID--Advancement Via Individual Determination, an incredible program that has over 95 percent effective rate of getting kids into college...and the arts have been getting hammered. We're bringing in artists in residence. If we end up with another budget cut in mid year I won't have to lose those programs," he said.
Powell said that since his decision was made public earlier this week, he's been overwhelmed by the response.
"My Facebook page has been hit with literally hundreds of thank yous…I'm no hero...It's a way to give back to the community I love and we're going to do that," Powell said.