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Jennifer Sprague, DISD's New Communications Chief, Will Make $185,000 a Year. Yes, That's Too Much.

Big front-pager in today's Morning News about how Mike Miles, Dallas ISD's new superintendent, will pay his new communications chief, Jennifer Sprague, $185,000 a year. The general consensus among those interviewed for the story: Holy hell that's a lot of money for that job. Which makes sense because, well, holy hell that's a lot of money for that job.

Look: Executives for big companies and organizations make big money, usually necessarily. The market requires it. And journalists' reactions to public-employee salaries reliably contain a little jealousy, especially for communications jobs. We consider those reporter-sell-out jobs, even if we would totally suck at them, which we would. It's depressing to learn that our Plan B pays so much more than Plan A.

But this is about more than just how much the job pays (although it is very much about that). It's also about who got hired, and how.

For starters, though: Holy hell that's a lot of money for that job. The top communications executive for the school district in New York City makes $125,000. Chicago: $165,000. Miami: $114,000. Las Vegas: Not exactly sure, but no one except the supe there appears to make more than $165,000. All of those school districts are larger than Dallas ISD, and the first three cities are more expensive than Dallas.

In fact, the only large-district communications chief I could find who makes that much is in Houston, which is a bigger school district. And that hire wasn't without controversy.

I spoke with Sprague -- who is 31, by the way -- about her salary this morning. She told me that her job is unique, a combination of marketing, messaging, programming and more. She said, humbly but forcefully, that she's worth the money.

"Historically communications is not valued at the level Mike values it," she said.

Most communications people sit at a desk cranking out press releases and answering media queries, she said. "I work differently. ... Whenever you have school reform, or any change, it has to be programs, it has to be initiatives ... That takes high-level, strategic-minded people."

I asked her whether any school districts view their communications chief the same way, so we could compare her apples to theirs. She couldn't name any of comparable size.

"It's rare," she said. "It's taken a lot of time for school districts to catch up" to the for-profit-world marketing-wise, she said. For-profit communications executives make even more, she pointed out.

But here's the thing: Education communications just isn't that specialized a field. Chief Academic Officer? Not a lot of people can do that in a big district. Chief Technology Officer? Doing that for a large school district a specific, high-pressure job. Low supply, high demand. Big money. Compliance, talent development, legal affairs: There are plenty of areas of public education that require a really specific set of skills. But communications isn't one of them. It's sales, basically, only for almost every customer you have, yours is the only product they've ever heard of.

Besides: Even if the job is worth $185,000 a year, that doesn't mean Miles had to pay Sprague that much to do it. Sprague made $86,000 doing the same job at Miles' old school district in Colorado Springs. Wouldn't she have done it here for $100,000? $125,000? (I asked her; she changed the subject.)

This is a cabinet-level position, Miles told the News, so it deserves a cabinet-level salary. But this ain't Facebook. When your "business" is staring at a multi-million-dollar budget gap, you don't pay more than you have to. You pay what the market demands, and when things improve -- when that employee helps things improve -- you give her the raise she deserves, to keep someone else from snapping her up.

Also: If you've got $185,000 a year to play with, is Sprague the best candidate for the job? Miles hired Sprague two weeks after he accepted the position. Did he look at other candidates? Did he, in the spirit of the run-it-like-a-business reform movement, mine the for-profit world for any potential hires?

Did he look into whether any of the communication executives in those other big cities would be interested? Look at their track records? (I've asked several times to interview Miles. I think we'd have fun. No dice so far.)

If Miles really wanted someone he was familiar with, someone with a proven track record, he might have looked at Janelle Asmus, the Chief Communications Officer of the education department in his old state, Colorado. When I asked Sprague for examples of communications executives whose job is similar to what she does, Asmus was the only name she mentioned. Asmus did the job in Adams County for a while, Sprague said, and she was so good she got poached by the state.

I talked to Asmus this afternoon. Nice woman. She makes $118,000 a year.


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