Cash-strapped education authorities in the United States might be cutting school supplies, freezing teachers' salaries and laying off staff to ease the worst funding crisis in a generation, but they're not scrimping on executive salaries.
Today's job market for US education chiefs (or school superintendents as they're called), could be compared with the overheated football transfer market. Like a star striker, Rudolph "Rudy" Crew, former chief of New York City's schools, broke the half-million dollar barrier in June. He stands to collect nearly $480,000 a year (pound;267,464), including bonuses and fringe benefits, as Miami's new schools chief, rising to $540,000 (pound;300,915) if he can stick things out until 2009-10.
Talks almost collapsed before a local businessman, Paul Cejas, the former US ambassador to Belgium, chipped in $240,000 (pound;133,736) for Mr Crew to buy a home in south Florida. The sum is technically a loan, but one-quarter will be forgiven annually and written off provided he remains in post until 2008.
The lucrative contract could make Mr Crew America's highest-paid school official, experts say. But don't bank on it. Base salary is one thing; perks such as pensions, complimentary cars and medical insurance - worth up to half a superintendent's salary again and, unlike in Crew's case, often undisclosed - are another substantial pay packet.
Miami landed Mr Crew after a bidding war with Washington DC and St Louis, in which the cities' education authorities behaved like corporate headhunters. Passions ran high. Spurned Washington mayor Anthony Williams - who'd personally courted Mr Crew - accused him of pitting rivals against each other for a higher price. Mr Crew denied playing financial hardball.
With 363,000 students, Miami is America's fourth-largest school district (education authority), and Mr Crew a sought-after veteran education supremo. But superintendent salaries are shooting up - the average remuneration at 500 school districts surveyed this year rose 12 per cent above the rate of inflation during the last decade, while teachers' pay slumped by 2 per cent. Last year, 40 superintendents in metropolitan Chicago made $200,000 (pound;111,478) in base pay, compared with 27 in 2001-2.
"It's supply and demand," says Michael Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University. Superintendents have customarily been drawn from the ranks of seasoned principals with education administration experience. But teachers are shying away from the high-pressure hot seat, he says.
"The number of good candidates is shrinking. People have decided that the job is so wearing they need more money to do it, and more are saying, 'I don't want the demands.' It's a lifestyle choice."
Exacerbating matters, a survey of 1,719 superintendents in 2000 found that 80 per cent were of retirement age.
Though some experts say a staffing crisis is unlikely, some US school districts are raising superintendent salaries not only to drum up interest from traditional career educator recruitment pools, but to woo candidates from other fields. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Denver and San Diego are in a vanguard of cities that have turned to non-traditional candidates to run their schools. New York's joint schools chief was a thorn in Microsoft's side as chief prosecutor in the US government's anti-monopoly crusade against the software giant during the 1990s, while Los Angeles poached the former governor of Colorado to lead its schools.
The role has been recast as a corporate executive-style position, even adopting business jargon. Chicago has a "schools CEO", for instance.
Controlling budgets that may run into billions of dollars and sprawling organisations often ranking among the largest local employers, the role is increasingly compared to that of a captain of industry.
Except, says Professor Kirst, it's harder. "School boards (which appoint superintendents) are much more intrusive than corporate boards."
Meanwhile, superintendents find themselves the subject of public criticism, particularly about academic performance amid high-stakes testing and accountability. They must also balance the demands of politically elected school boards - whose members change every two years - and increasingly vocal parents.
"US lawmakers don't shrink from drastic action if they think students are being ill-served," says Professor Kirst.
In 2002, New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, usurped the city's school district, assuming direct control of schools. Last year, St Louis farmed out its crisis-ridden schools to a management consultancy specialising in rescuing bankrupt businesses. This summer, New Orleans school board tried to oust the superintendent, less than a year into his tenure, citing his failure to improve test scores or finances.
Rudy Crew knows superintendents are being held hostage to fickle political fortunes and whims. He was dismissed as New York's schools chief in 1999 after clashing with Rudy Giuliani, who was then mayor, over publicly funded vouchers for students to attend private schools. In Miami, he'll be the sixth superintendent in 15 years.