When teachers lost their step increase, Lewis gave up his $10,000 cost of living increase that should have kicked in July 1; and when he met his goals and earned a $22,000 bonus, he only took half of it.
“I felt that if the people I lead have to give up something, let me demonstrate my leadership by joining them,” Lewis said.
The DeKalb School Board, which employs Lewis, is now negotiating his contract amidst shrinking revenues and lots of belt-tightening brought on the economic recession.
At its Dec. 7 meeting, David Schutten, president of the teacher’s union, Organization of DeKalb Educators, signaled to the board that there would be rumblings in the ranks if board members increased Lewis’s pay or benefits while teachers and bus drivers are preparing for more cuts.
“It would send a terrible message to everybody in this county,” he said. “This would create a crisis of confidence beyond anything we have ever seen in the school system.” Schutten said people are under stress and morale is at an all-time low.
“I hope that you are acting in good faith and have the best interest of all employees,” he said. “Think about the message you are sending to the people on the front lines in the school system that have taken cut after cut after cut and are getting ready to take more cuts.”
Lewis, who completed his fifth year as superintendent in October, leads the state’s third-largest school district, behind Gwinnett and Cobb counties.
Board members and Lewis say that he voluntarily gave up $29,000 in pay and bonuses in the last two years out of solidarity with employees and teachers who had to take salary reductions.
When those reductions are factored in, Lewis’ $255,924 package of pay and travel benefits, is really $226,924, which moves him from the third highest paid superientendent to sixth place behind Fulton County’s Cynthia Low, who manages a district with 89,000 students.
Even Clayton County’s superintendent, Edmond Heatley, who has been on the job for five months managing a district that is less than half the size of DeKalb’s makes more – $3,676 – more than Lewis when both men’s package of pay and travel benefits are compared.
“I am going backwards,” Lewis said Wednesday. “I can’t continue doing this. I am not a rookie anymore.”
Board members who completed Lewis’s annual evaluation in October have been meeting behind closed doors about his contract.
Tom Bowen, the board’s chairman, said they should have 2010 goals for Lewis finalized by the end of the month or by January, the latest.
Lewis’ contract, which was extended by a year in March without any financial incentive, now expires October 2011. Bowen said they had to extend it because it is customary for superintendents to have contracts extending 12 to 18 months out.
Lewis said that if it gets to a year and the contract is not extended, superintendents know to start job hunting.
While he had not had any contract discussions with the board, Lewis’s lawyer and board lawyers have spoken.
“They have the eight dimensions I want,” he said.
None of them includes him making less money.
“It’s not reasonable for me to start out with less,” he said. “I am a bargain for this board. I am so underpaid compared to other superintendents.”
Board members are mum on the talks and some expressed surprise at the rumors that Schutten mentioned during his comments at Monday’s board meeting.
“That’s a personnel issue,” said Sarah Copelin-Wood, who represents District 3. “I don’t understand how it gets out in the public arena.”
While she could not comment on the superintendent’s contract discussions, Copelin-Wood said she is a great proponent of the employees and teachers getting a step increase or cost of living raises.
“They have not gotten anything in two years,” she said. They deserve it. Bus drivers, cafeteria workers and custodians are the lowest paid employees in the system. I am in support of them getting their step increase or a cost of living increase.”
Dr. Eugene Walker, the District 9 Board member, said the rumors mentioned by Schutten have no merit.
“I can’t speak for any other board members, but it is inconceivable to me that we would give our superintendent a raise and our teachers have not had a step increase and we have cut bus drivers’ pay by 29 percent,” he said. “This is one board member who would not be party to it. Before we can consider any increase for the superintendent, we would have to increase those making the least amount of money first.”
District 4 board member H.Paul Womack Jr. would not say whether an increase was on the table for Lewis, but he noted that even Clayton County pays its superintendent more than DeKalb pays Lewis.
He said Lewis has performed “admirably and has done an outstanding job.”
“He has brought the school system forward on a lot of high goals,” Womack said. “If we were to lose Dr. Lewis, it would cost us $300,000 easily to replace him.”
Womack, who led a $5.2 billion a year company before he retired, said Lewis would measure up in any company in which he worked.
“Dr. Lewis is worth more than we are paying him,” Womack said. “He sets high goals and he passed every one of them. This community is damn lucky we have Dr. Lewis.”
Lewis, who worked 32 years with the school system before he became superintendent, says he would like to finish his career with DeKalb Schools but he acknowledged that he is being courted regularly by other school systems across the county.
“I believe I can make a difference,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean I am going to continue falling behind.”