Private salary supplements to public officials is a problem

USD 259, the Wichita public school district, outgoing superintendent Winston Brooks has been receiving a supplemental salary paid for by private interests. This salary supplement, supporters say, was necessary to prevent Mr. Brooks from leaving Wichita for somewhere else where he would be paid more.

One way to look at this salary supplement is that USD 259 received the services of someone whose salary they couldn’t afford. And since the salary supplement was funded by the voluntary action of citizens, how can we object? But there are problems with this type of arrangement.

If a superintendent of schools depends on the owner of, say, a car dealership to lead a group that pays a significant share of his salary, and then it comes time for the school district to purchase cars, how can we be sure there is no conflict of interest?

When it comes time for the school district to purchase cars or anything else, do we check to make sure that the selected vendor isn’t a member of, or have a friend on, the committee that provides the superintendent’s supplemental salary? And if so, is the district getting a good deal? Or would too many restrictions prevent the district from getting the best deal on their purchases?

Another problem is that it may be the case that the superintendent of schools is worthy of a large salary, perhaps much larger than the current salary and supplement. Someone who can effectively manage an organization with thousands of employees and an annual budget of over half a billion dollars is worth a great deal. Someone who can make a positive difference in how well Wichita’s schoolchildren are educated is invaluable.

This illustrates a problem with government institutions. They do not have the flexibility to respond to events and circumstances in the way private enterprise can. If it was the case that the new incoming superintendent could save tens of millions of dollars while greatly improving student outcomes, that person would be worth a salary of, say, one million dollars or more. But as a practical matter, USD 259 could not pay anyone a salary that large. There would be too much resentment.

The main problem is that USD 259, like all government school districts, is funded not through voluntary transactions, but through taxation backed up by coercion. When taxpayers are forced to pay for things they don’t agree with, resentment builds.

Further, because the Wichita public schools raise funds through taxation instead of voluntary transactions taking place in markets, we do not know, and the board of USD 259 certainly does not know, if their expenditures are wise and efficient. This applies to a superintendent’s salary and every other expenditure the school district makes. Absent the test of profitability, or even the test of having to attract customers and revenue through voluntary decisions on the part of consumers, we do not know how efficiently USD 259 manages the resources they have.

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