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BGA Public Eye: It pays to run community colleges

Leaders of taxpayer-subsidized community colleges in the Chicago area are collecting salaries that surpass most of their peers around the country, a Better Government Association analysis finds.

They also are getting perks in some cases worth more than $135,000 a year.

The base salary for the top administrators of the 14 community college systems in the city and suburbs ranges from the $183,750 paid to Don Manning at South Suburban College in South Holland to the $279,191 Elgin Community College pays David Sam.

Sam’s salary is up from $260,000 in 2014.

He’s earned it, says Donna Redmer, who chairs the Elgin Community College board. Under Sam, the school has seen an increase in the number of students finishing two-year degrees and certifications — a rise also seen at most of other community colleges in the Chicago area. The Elgin school also has seen a drop in the number of student-loan defaults and has had success in tightening a performance gap between Latino and white students, according to Redmer.

“It’s all about good leadership,” she says.

Sam’s total compensation comes to $415,529 a year — tops in the survey. In addition to his salary, the Elgin school makes a $46,000 annuity contribution for him and gives him a $27,919 “retention” bonus, a $27,919 housing allowance, a $22,500 pension contribution and a $12,000 expense account. His other benefits include health care coverage, a leased car, a laptop and cellphone.

The analysis also found:

• The average annual salary for top community college administrators in the Chicago area is $240,872 — compared to the national average of about $194,000, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

• Most of the community college bosses’ pension contributions are paid by their schools, which typically also provide additional retirement benefits through deferred compensation and annuities.

• Though tuition is rising and enrollment declining at the seven-campus City Colleges of Chicago, chancellor Cheryl Hyman was given a $35,000 bonus earlier this year by the agency’s board, bringing her total compensation to $320,667.

• Two college presidents get yearly stipends for expenses that aren’t reimbursed. For Jerry Weber of the College of Lake County, that stipend amounts to $15,600.

What community colleges pay their leaders was brought into the spotlight earlier this year when Robert Breuder was placed on leave as president of the College of DuPage amid federal and state investigations and a scandal over spending and his lavish compensation. Joseph Collins, COD’s acting interim president, is paid $307,678 a year but has no added perks, according to a spokesman for the Glen Ellyn school, which is the largest community college in Illinois.

State Sen. Bill Cunningham, a Chicago Democrat representing part of the South Side and south suburbs, says compensation packages have become increasingly generous in higher education. And the added perks often aren’t readily known, Cunningham says.

“When it comes to hiring a new president, institutions of higher education can’t operate like Major League Baseball teams,” Cunningham says. “They have to focus on how much they can afford.”

Cunningham says he’s troubled that some perks can be counted as income toward college administrators’ pensions, boosting their retirement pay.

Community colleges are supported through a combination of state aid, property taxes and tuition. Tuition at Chicago-area community colleges has steadily increased. The average yearly cost for tuition and fees is $3,768, up from $2,764 in 2010, according to the Illinois Community College Board.

Meanwhile, between 2010 and 2014, the 14 community colleges in the city and suburbs saw their student population decline by about 15 percent, according to the community college board. In 2014, those schools had 472,219 students enrolled in at least one course.