SMMUSD HDQTRS — When it comes to the total earning levels of superintendents in Los Angeles County, the local school district is only second to one.

That one is not the Los Angeles Unified School District — the second largest in the nation — but Glendale Unified where the chief there earned approximately $273,188 in the 2008-09 academic year, according to a recent report compiling superintendent salaries by the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Superintendent Tim Cuneo, who was hired in February after a half-year stint in an interim capacity, came in second in the county, earning $270,400, which includes a $220,000 base salary, a $38,000 housing allowance and $12,000 automobile and cell phone stipend. He is one of three superintendents who receive a housing allowance, the others being Redondo Beach and San Gabriel Unified School District with $12,000 a piece.

Cuneo’s contract has been criticized by some parents and the local teachers union who question the relatively high salary given the current financial status of the district, which is anticipating a $8 million to $12 million funding shortfall over the next three years.

“It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the teachers association was critical and disappointed when the Board of Education approved such a lucrative contract for our superintendent at a time when so many of our teachers are dealing with increased class sizes and so many average Americans are struggling during this severe economic recession,” Harry Keiley, the president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association, said.

Keiley said that many teachers cannot afford to rent an apartment in the city.

“We’re struggling just to maintain the status quo and to try to weather this recession and at the same time not compromise the quality of the instruction we provide for our students,” he said.

The union, which is currently going through contract negotiations over health benefits, has asked that the board make cuts closer to the central administration and farther away from the classroom.

Board members defended the contract as fair considering the amount of progress and changes made in the district by Cuneo during his short time as the interim superintendent. Cuneo replaced Dianne Talarico who came to the district in 2006 after signing a three-year contract that paid her a base salary of $182,000 a year with a $650 monthly automobile allowance and $1,000 a month in the first year to pay for a mentor.

School board President Ralph Mechur said the housing allowance was included understanding that Cuneo would not sell his house and relocate his family to Santa Monica, covering the living expenses of a two-bedroom condo in the city.

He noted that executives in both the public and private sectors are typically given a housing allowance.

“With the work he had done it was important for us to continue to work with him because he had quickly brought stability to the district and tackled important issues such as special education and felt it was in the best interest of the community to not have him focus on finding a replacement who would have taken another six months to come up to speed,” Mechur said.

Barry Snell, the school board vice president, also noted that the housing allowance is roughly the same sum of money that the district would have spent on a head hunter if the board had decided to find a new superintendent, estimating it would have cost about $30,000 to $50,000 for a search firm.

He added that the district’s financial issues did not come to light until after the contract was approved.

“We felt he had done such a great job handling special education and pretty much showing a lot of leadership in our community that … we felt it was justifiable,” Snell said.

According to the report, many superintendents receive an auto and cell phone allowance and expense stipend. The superintendent in the Wilsona Elementary School District in Palmdale has the lowest salary in the county, earning $116,800 in 2008-09.

School board members said that the superintendent and senior cabinet salaries will be a part of any discussions concerning employee pay cuts. Cuneo said that he has already told the board that he will not seek his 10 percent bonus for this year.

“If the economy is good and things are in good shape, then I should be compensated for performances if I meet the targets,” Cuneo said. “I plan on meeting targets but I do not plan on asking for a bonus because it’s a difficult time financially.”

He added that the senior staff is in discussions with the board about making adjustments with compensation.

“We have gone through it with the board but the board wished to hold [on taking action] until all units have completed all bargaining,” Cuneo said.

Cuneo said that the contract he negotiated included some requirements put in by the board, including that he live in the community.

Among the biggest critics of the superintendent’s contract is Santa Monica resident Jim Jaffe who said that Cuneo earns substantially more than Talarico did in her contract.

“It just amazes me that they would make this decision in light of the crisis that we’re in now,” Jaffe said.