AUBURN – The Auburn School System gives its superintendent a bigger driving allowance than any other large school system in the state.
At $7,200 a year – or $600 a month – the automatic, no-strings-attached stipend is a nice perk. But at least one taxpayer believes it’s unreasonable and unaffordable in a city struggling to keep property taxes down.
“I don’t think there’s any need for it,” said Greg Desgrosseilliers, member of watchdog group United Citizens of Auburn.
Desgrosseilliers questioned the stipend during a school committee meeting in March. Committee members supported the expense, saying Superintendent Barbara Eretzian must travel a lot for the job.
A Sun Journal survey shows that Eretzian’s stipend is higher than any other superintendent in Maine’s 10 largest school system, although the rest of her contract is similar to most.
Oxford-area’s SAD 17, the most sprawling school system, gives its superintendent $5,100 for travel expenses, $2,100 less than Auburn.
Portland, the school system with the most students, spends $3,000 to $4,000, the superintendent there estimated. Portland leases a car for her and pays for gas.
In Lewiston, Superintendent Leon Levesque’s car allowance is factored into his $108,970 salary. He can also get up to $3,000 a year for out-of-state travel, but Levesque said he doesn’t always use it up.
Eretzian makes $107,087 and always gets $7,200 a year in a car allowance, no matter how much she travels. (The salary is in the middle of the pack among the 10 top districts.)
At the IRS reimbursement rate, 44.5 cents per mile, her travel stipend would amount to 16,179 miles a year – nearly a round-trip from Auburn to Augusta every weekday.
But Eretzian contends the money also pays for tolls and maintenance, anything she needs to travel for work.
“It’s not solely for mileage,” she said. “It’s everything.”
The Sun Journal’s survey found that Eretzian’s stipend is also more than twice what the state’s education commissioner got last year. The commissioner, who oversees all schools in Maine, traveled just over 8,500 miles and got $2,894 in state-rate reimbursement to mileage, tolls and parking, according to the governor’s office.
Eretzian doesn’t track her mileage, but she said she does travel often.
“I’m in meetings out of town two, three times a week. It could be Lewiston, it could be SAD 52, Augusta, Orono or south,” she said.
Like many school leaders, Eretzian travels to meet with lawmakers, work with the Maine Department of Education and work with other superintendents. She also serves on several state education committees.
Of the top 10 superintendents, some serve on the same statewide committees as Eretzian. Others choose not to.
The Auburn School Committee asked Eretzian to join such statewide groups, said Chairwoman Kathy Constantine.
“But when you do that, you’re also requiring the superintendent to do more travel,” Constantine said.
Travel is such an integral part of the job that Auburn used to provide its school leader with a car, Eretzian said. One former superintendent asked instead for a vehicle allowance. Eretzian got the same when she became superintendent 13 years ago. It is part of her contract.
The stipend has gone up over the years as gas prices and travel expectations increased.
Desgrosseilliers doesn’t have a problem with Eretzian getting reimbursed for her travel. But to him, it seems to be a large – and hidden – expense, without mileage slips to back it up.
“They say she does travel that much, but there’s no proof,” Desgrosseilliers said.
He found the expense while combing through the thick school budget proposed for next year. Although the stipend is taxable and automatically paid every month, it is not listed as salary, as Desgrosseilliers believes it should be.
Instead, it is listed within $12,000 under “mileage reimbursement” for central office staff. Of that, $7,200 is for the superintendent and $4,800 is for the business manager, Jude Cyr.
“You have this other stipend and this stipend. All that adds up after a while,” Desgrosseilliers said.
With skyrocketing gas prices, he sees the stipend only going in one direction in the coming years.
“I would assume that number would change,” he said. “And I don’t think it’ll go lower.”