Tracie Cone / AP
Fresno County School Superintendent Larry Powell poses in his office, in Fresno, Calif. Powell is forgoing $800,000 in compensation over the next three years of his term. Until his term expires in 2015, Powell will run 325 schools and 35 school districts with 195,000 students, all for less than a starting California teacher earns. As he prepares for retirement, he wants to ensure that his pet projects survive California budget cuts.
School superintendent gives up $800,000 in pay
'There's no reason for me to keep stockpiling money,' he says
8/28/2011 12:03:51 PM ET
FRESNO, Calif.— Some people give back to
their community. Then there's Fresno County
School Superintendent Larry Powell, who's
really giving back. As in $800,000 — what
would have been his compensation for the
next three years.
Until his term expires in 2015, Powell will run
325 schools and 35 school districts with
195,000 students, all for less than a starting
California teacher earns.
"How much do we need to keep
accumulating?" asks Powell, 63. "There's no
reason for me to keep stockpiling money."
Powell's generosity is more than just a gesture
in a region with some of the nation's highest
rates of unemployment. As he prepares for
retirement, he wants to ensure that his pet
projects survive California budget cuts. And
the man who started his career as a high
school civics teacher, who has made anti-
bullying his mission, hopes his act of
generosity will help restore faith in the
government he once taught students to
"A part of me has chaffed at what they did in
Bell," Powell said, recalling the corrupt
Southern California city officials who secretly
boosted their salaries by hundreds of
thousands of dollars. "It's hard to believe that
someone in the public trust would do that to
the public. My wife and I asked ourselves
'What can we do that might restore confidence
Powell's answer? Ask his board to allow him to
return $288,241 in salary and benefits for the
next three and a half years of his term. He
technically retired, then agreed to be hired
back to work for $31,000 a year — $10,000
less than a first-year teacher — and with no
"I thought it was so very generous on his part,"
said school board member Sally Tannenbaum.
"We get to keep him, but at a much lower rate."
His move was so low-key, his manner so
unassuming, that it took four days after the
school board meeting for word of his act to
get out to the community. There were no press
releases or self-congratulatory pats on the
"Things like this are what America is all about,"
said friend Alan Autry, Fresno's former
celebrity mayor who played Capt. Bubba
Skinner on the TV series "In the Heat of The
"America is as much about overcoming
obstacles in difficult times as it is opulence,"
Autry said. "This reminds me of the great
sacrifices made throughout our history,
especially the Great Depression."
No one has been more surprised about the
positive reaction than Powell, a lifelong
educator who didn't realize that what he did
was newsworthy. He chuckles at his desk
when yet another e-mail arrives from a
colleague blown away by his generosity. Two
days after word got out he had received 200
messages on his Facebook page.
"When you make good choices, good things
happen to you," said Powell, who tends to talk
in the kind of uplifting phrases that also make
him a sought-after motivational speaker.
He even sees as an asset his childhood
contraction of polio, which left him with a limp
and a brace, and now a lingering post-polio
"It's the most spectacular thing that has
happen to me in all my life," he said. "People
stepped up to help me be successful."
Powell might credit others, but others say
Powell's drive always has come from within.
Despite the right leg brace and experimental
operations to stop the growth of his healthy
leg, he became a champion high school
wrestler in Fresno and set a record for one of
the most dreaded of all gym class drills — the
20-foot rope climb, which he completed in 1.8
seconds. Today he carries a six handicap in
After moving into school administration he
became deputy superintendent, and was
appointed to his current job before running
for the office in 2006.
The ordained Baptist minister, who serves on
the board of a national anti-bullying group
that sprang from the Columbine shootings, is
so popular he even counts among his friends
his contract bargaining nemesis, the former
head of the employees' union.
"For a leader to step up to help the budget is
phenomenal," said Mike Lepore. "It gives you
hope. It gives you the feeling that everything is
being done to try to make education work. It's
Larry. It really is."
Powell will still earn a six-figure retirement,
especially hefty by the standards of
California's farming heartland. But because his
salary comes out of the district's discretionary
budget, for the next three years he'll be able to
steer the money he is giving up where he
wants: to programs for kindergarten and
preschool, the arts and a pet project that
steers B and C students into college by
teaching them how to take notes and develop
"Our goal has never been to have things,"
Powell said of himself and his wife, Dot. "We
want to give back."