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Everyone knows it’s harder to get by financially in Hawaii than on the mainland.
After all, the average Honolulu worker earns $918 per week, less than half of the average for workers in mainland cities with a similar cost of living.
But what about some of the islands’ highest-paid public employees? They’re not starving, obviously, but they’re also not necessarily doing that well when compared to their mainland counterparts — especially those working in less pricey places.
Civil Beat examined how the pay of six of those top public wage-earners stacks up against similar positions across the Pacific. The results are wide-ranging, with some Hawaii leaders doing relatively well and others looking almost underpaid.
As the head of America’s only statewide district and the ninth-largest school system, Kishimoto oversees about 180,000 students and 13,000 staff members across 290 schools.
Kishimoto is the sixth-highest-paid state superintendent in the nation, according to an Education Week report released last month. The average salary is $174,000.
But remember — every state except Hawaii also has numerous school districts, each with its own superintendent.
The Board of Education didn’t respond to a request for comment about why Kishimoto is being paid more than her predecessor and most of the country’s state superintendents, but said in a press release when Kishimoto was selected in May: “She is recognized nationally as a visionary leader in education for her reform work in school turnaround and portfolio school development.”
University of Hawaii President David Lassner earns $375,000 for heading the system’s three universities and seven community colleges. He’s the fifth-highest-paid employee in the system and the 10-highest-paid employee in the state.
But right now Lassner is wearing two hats. Not only is he UH president, but he continues to serve as interim chancellor for the flagship Manoa campus after a finalist for that position declined a job earlier this year. Lassner recommended to the Board of Regents, which sets policy for the system, that he receive no additional compensation.
More than 51,600 UH students registered for the fall semester, and about a third of them are on the Manoa campus.
UW President Ana Mari Cauce earns about $150,000 more than Lassner. Cauce’s annual base pay is $524,625, which might make her the highest-paid female president of an American state university, according to a Seattle Times report. Seattle and Honolulu both have high costs of living.
Lassner also makes less than a few other UH employees, including the football coach.
Head football coaches are among the most expensive public employees in some states — and even in Hawaii, not too long ago.
Nick Rolovich, current head coach of UH Manoa’s football team, makes just $400,000 per year. At age 38, he is one of the younger head coaches in Division 1 football.
A USA Today survey of 119 NCAA head coach salaries found Rolovich had the third-lowest base pay. He’s at rock-bottom in the Mountain West Conference, which features 12 schools from California to Wyoming, making $110,000 less than the next coach up.
UH’s football program also has a smaller budget and higher travel expenses than its league rivals.
Those figures reflect the fact that these are not exactly the glory days of UH football. The Rainbow Warriors were occasionally a national power in the past. In recent years, victories have decreased, and so has attendance at Aloha Stadium and the resulting revenue for the university.
David Matlin, director of UH Manoa Athletics, said Rolovich’s salary is lower than his predecessors because the department has “some fiscal challenges” and is trying to balance its budget. But Rolovich has matured quickly for a first-year head coach, he said.
“If Nick keeps doing the same job he’s doing, we’re going to have to figure some things out,” Matlin said.
If Rolovich can rejuvenate the program, he could also pad his wallet. His contract includes a package of potential bonuses totaling $1.26 million, including $1 million for winning the national championship.
Like other elected or appointed Honolulu officials, the police chief’s salary is set by the city Salary Commission.
Former Police Chief Louis Kealoha was making $182,000 when he stepped down after being identified as a suspect in a federal corruption investigation. His former assistant chief, Cary Okimoto, is serving as interim chief until the Honolulu Police Commission finds a replacement.
The Salary Commission has recommended a 5 percent increase for all elected and appointed officials to address the fact that some subordinate employees were earning more than department heads. The next police chief will make $191,200 per year.
Police departments in Boston, Atlanta, Columbus, Ohio, and San Francisco are around the same size as Honolulu’s, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Boston Police Chief William Gross earns $190,000, according to the Boston Herald, while Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields earns $200,200, according to Politically Georgia. Columbus Police Chief Kim Jacobs made $167,600 in 2014, the Columbus Dispatch reported.
San Francisco’s top cop, William Scott, earns far more than Honolulu’s chief. He’s paid $316,000, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Earlier this month, Andrew Robbins took over as executive director of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation. It won’t be an easy gig — after a series of construction delays and cost overruns, just 16 percent of state voters said they felt good about the rail project.
Robbins will be paid $317,000 per year for his trouble under a three-year contract, which also includes annual housing and transportation allowances.
It’s hard to find a perfect mainland comparison since Robbins is overseeing a rail system under construction, but he fares well compared to the heads of already-built rail systems.
When completed, Honolulu’s 20-mile rail line will span 21 stops from East Kapolei to Ala Moana. Houston, Seattle and Boston are home to light rail systems of similar length.
Houston Metro CEO Tom Lambert is paid $310,000 per year, the Houston Chronicle reported. In Seattle, Sound Transit chief Peter Rogoff makes $298,000, according to The Seattle Times, and Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority General Manager Luis Ramirez earns $320,000, The Boston Globe reported.
Still, the school’s dean, Jerris Hedges, currently earns $534,800 per year, making him the highest-paid UH employee and second-highest-paid state employee.
Medical schools benefit universities by drawing students from all over the country, and attracting grants and donations. The UH version is seen as helping to address the state’s shortage of doctors.
“Physicians who train in Hawaii frequently practice in Hawaii” and residency programs “are one of the most direct ways to reduce physician shortages,” UH’s Hawaii Medical Education Council said in its annual report to the Legislature.
Hedges’s salary is close to what some of his peers in medical schools with similar enrollment numbers earn.
At the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine, dean Mary Nettleman (the top-paid employee in that state), makes $577,650 annually, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
And at the East Carolina University Brody School of Medicine, dean Mark Stacy earns $600,000, the Daily Reflector reported.
Again, these areas have lower costs of living than Hawaii.