Karen Cheser, who will assume the reins as Durango School District 9-R superintendent in July, will make $200,000 annually and receive a more generous benefits package than the current superintendent, Dan Snowberger.
Cheser currently makes $170,000 with Fort Thomas Independent Schools in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, a suburb of Cincinnati.
Besides her annual salary, 9-R has agreed to cover Cheser’s employee portion of required contributions to the Colorado Public Employees’ Retirement Association, the state employee retirement fund.
A $200,000 salary would require a school employee to contribute $21,000 annually to PERA.
9-R will also pay the entire cost of Cheser’s health insurance premiums, both the employer and employee portion of the monthly premiums, a benefit worth $7,908 to $12,936 annually, depending on which health plan she chooses.
Cheser said the retirement and health insurance contract provisions are similar to her contract with Fort Thomas Independent Schools. However, she is also paid a $17,000 annuity at Fort Thomas in addition to state of Kentucky public school retirement benefits.
Her contract with Fort Thomas schools also pays the entire cost of her health insurance premiums, she said.
“I don’t want people to think this was all about money,” she said in a telephone interview. “I am just really excited about working in Durango and helping students. I think the district was just trying to be competitive.”
Cheser signed a three-year contract that will run through June 30, 2024. The contract also includes the use of a car and a $600-a-month car allowance, similar to a provision in Snowberger’s contract.
Cheser will also receive $20,000 for moving expenses. Snowberger, who started with 9-R in 2012, received $7,000 in moving expenses.
Snowberger’s current annual salary is $169,320.
Cheser said she will move with her husband, Scott Richards, who will relocate his custom woodworking business to Durango. The $20,000 alloted for moving is on par with price quotes for the move, she said.
“My family and I are very excited to make our official move to Durango this June, and I look forward to working with this amazing community to continue to find successes for all students,” Cheser said. “There are already so many wonderful things going on, such as the activities related to the 2020 bond, returning all students to full-time in-person learning and the continued focus on career and technical education.”
9-R School Board President Kristin Smith said: “Dr. Cheser comes to us with many years of experience. She has over 20 years of experience. She has been a superintendent for the last four years, and she comes with a doctorate.
“And so those were all things that we were looking at. When you hire someone and they come in with a doctorate, you have to value that through the salary process.”
During the search process, consultants with Aspen Group International told school board members 9-R’s superintendent salary was at the low end compared with other Colorado school districts. They added that the hiring of a new superintendent would likely require a substantial increase in salary and benefits.
Two districts comparable to 9-R – Steamboat Springs School District and Cheyenne Mountain School District – pay their superintendents $201,000 and $265,000 annually, according to AGI.
Cheser said her 9-R health insurance policy would cover her husband, her two college-age sons, Wyatt and Will, as well as herself.
Offering an attractive health benefit package was important in attracting top people to fill the superintendent’s position, Smith said.
“For any high-level position, that’s something people are looking for these days, health insurance, because it is so hard to come by,” she said.
The 9-R board agreed to a dollar value amount to compensate the next superintendent, but Cheser’s package exceeded the value of the initial package envisioned by the board.
Smith and school board member Mick Souder were assigned to negotiate with Cheser.
Individually, they informed the other school board members that to meet Cheser’s proposal, they would have to increase the value of their initial compensation deal. Each member of the board agreed to increase the value of the package in individual meetings, Smith said.