With a workforce of close to 1,000 — teachers, principals, police, firefighters, highway workers, administrators, and secretaries — Ridgefield town government’s biggest expense is salaries. Employees’ pay accounts for almost $57 million of the current $93-million school budget, and nearly $18 million of the $37-million budget for town departments.

Salaries — especially some of the higher ones — can also be a trigger point in taxpayers’ debates about the cost of government.

The biggest money is in the school system, with some 750 employees and the highest paying position. Town departments have 188 full-time jobs, 47 part-timers, and close to 200 seasonal or on-call workers.

Board of Education member Doug Silver defended the schools’ pay levels during recent budget discussions with the Board of Finance.

“We feel we offer a great value to the community,” Silver said. “The people who work in our schools — we’re proud of everybody.”

With the goal of hiring good people, he said, salaries in the schools should be competitive with those in surrounding affluent suburban school systems — Wilton, Westport, Darien, and other districts in the DRG-A demographic comparison group that the state places Ridgefield in.

“We’re in DRG-A. What are other schools paying?” Silver said. “You look at the salaries of individuals and say, ‘Why are they paying so much?’ It’s the DRG.”

At the same meeting, finance board member Dick Moccia offered a different perspective.

“Whatever the salary is — let’s say it’s $170,000. There are people making $110,000, and if you offer them $140,000, they’ll take it,” he said.

Silver later explained his point in an emailed response to an inquiry from The Press.

“When we negotiate contracts, the bargaining units come in with the comparison data from other schools in our DRG (and the state). Ridgefield has to be in a reasonable range of those,” Silver wrote.

“Furthermore, if we want to attract the best people, they do look at our salary structure as part of their decision to come to work in Ridgefield. Salary is a consideration for people who work in our schools when deciding to leave and take a job outside of Ridgefield.”

At the joint meeting, finance board members recalled that a few years ago the schools’ technology director had left to work in Weston — presumably because they paid more.

Both finance and school board members at the table agreed that, in union negotiations, it can often be more cost-effective to settle than to end up in mediation or arbitration proceedings overseen by the state.

Top 10

Ridgefield’s “top 10” school salaries are all higher than the 10 highest town salaries. The salaries are often determined not only by the marketplace, and the experience and academic background required, but also by an employee’s longevity on the job.

Here’s a look at the school salaries by position:

  • Superintendent of schools: $233,303 (currently vacant).
  • Assistant superintendent, curriculum: $198,278.
  • Assistant superintendent, special education: $189,063.
  • High school principal: $189,055.
  • Director of personnel: $178,954.
  • Middle school principal: $176,876.
  • Middle school principal: $176,876.
  • High school assistant principal: $169,543.
  • Elementary principal: $169,409.
  • Elementary principal: $169,409.

(Editor’s note: There are a total of six elementary principals at this level.)

And the top 10 town salaries:

  • Chief of police: $147,977.
  • Town engineer: $140,969.
  • Finance director: $139,773.
  • Police dajor: $134,534.
  • First selectman: $131,747.
  • Public services director: $130,640.
  • Assessor: $122,464.
  • Police captain: $120,132.
  • Fire chief: $115,126.
  • Maintenance mechanics supervisor: $112,201.

Nearby towns

For some comparison, figures kept by the regional Cooperative Educational Services show Ridgefield’s superintendent of schools sixth among seven nearby suburban DRG-A school districts.

The districts and superintendent pay, in descending order, are Westport, $292,125; Darien, $278,000; New Canaan, $262,248; Weston, $263,120; Wilton, $234,000; Ridgefield, $232,000; and Easton/Redding/Region 9, $216,000.

Ridgefield’s now former superintendent, Karen Baldwin, was sixth among the seven. (The Ridgefield district reported the superintendent’s salary at a slightly higher $233,303 — still sixth of the seven).

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities provided 2017-18 salaries for seven neighboring towns for police chief, Ridgefield’s highest town salary, and first selectman, the only elected position.

The police chief salaries, in descending order, are Darien, $158,953; Westport, $155,219; Redding, $148,634; Ridgefield, $147,977; Wilton, $140,760; Weston, $116,040; and Easton, $109,595.

For first selectman, salaries show a wider range, with a couple of smaller town paying less than half what the main group does. The towns and first selectman salaries are Wilton, $136,108; Ridgefield, $131,747; Darien, $130,000; Redding, $114,527; Westport, $101,475; Easton, $63,359; and Weston, $52,000.

School unions

The real bulk of salaries in the town and school budgets aren’t for top administrators, but the more numerous union rank and file. (School administrators outside the central office, like principals and assistant principals, also have a union.) Here’s a look at some of the pay ranges spelled out in school union contracts.

Teachers’ annual salary range is from $46,811 to $116,789, though some teachers get paid additional money for extra duties like after-school coaching. They work a 187-day year.

School nurses have a salary of $53,758 based on $39.41 an hour for 187 days with a minimum work day of seven hours and 20 minutes a day.

School secretaries go from $26.37 per hour for a starting school secretary to $35.22 an hour for the top bookkeeper. Based on seven hours a day for a 260-day work year, that amounts to a $47,993 annual salary for the starting secretary and $64,100 a year for the top bookkeeper.

School custodians and maintenance workers range from $22.78 an hour for a starting custodian up to $43.69 an hour for an HVAC mechanic. Based on their eight-hour workday for 260 days, that’s $47,382 a year for the starting custodian, and $90,875 for the HVAC mechanic.

Paraeducators, or “paras,” have a variety of roles, from supervisory paras who watch playgrounds and lunchrooms for an hour and a half a day to instructional paras who work six hours and 20 minutes a day helping teach kids. There are also clerical paras who work in office roles. Paras generally work 182 school days a year.

Supervisory paras make $15.27 to $20.17 an hour, and their work days range from an hour and half to six hours and 20 minutes a day.

Clerical paras make $16.93 to $22.09 an hour, and work days range from about three and a half hours a day to six hours and 20 minutes a day.

Instructional paras make $18.19 to $23.97 an hour, and generally work six hours and 20 minutes a day.

Based on that, the low end for paras would be a starting supervisory para working at $15.27 an hour for just an hour and half a day, bringing home $4,169 for the 182-day work year.

The high end would be $27,615 for an experienced instructional para making $23.97 an hour and working six hours and 20 minutes a day for 182 days.

Town unions

The United Public Service Employees Union (UPSEU) represents most town workers — clerks, custodians, dispatchers, assistants in administrative offices. The town’s contract with the UPSEU calls for a 35-hour workweek.

At the the bottom of the pay scale is a custodian I, with a pay range from $12.48 to $16.21 an hour. At the top are high-level administrators, such as assistant tax collectors and deputy town clerks, where the range is from $23.89 an hour to $33.45 an hour.

Based on the contract’s 35-hour week, the salary range for town UPSEU workers starts at $22,713 for 52 weeks for a starting grade I custodian. The top of the pay range is $60,879 for assistant department administrators.

The town’s contract with the International Association of Firefighters, Local 1739, calls for an average 42-hour workweek — actual hours vary week to week, based on the shifts necessitated by the fire department’s 24-hour coverage seven days a week.

Salaries in the firefighters’ contract’s final year (2016-17) range from a starting firefighter-paramedic at $51,796 a year to a top captain at $85,451 a year. (A new contract has been negotiated, and is awaiting approval by the union, according to First Selectman Rudy Marconi. The new pay rates will be retroactive to July 1.)

For police, 2017-18 is the middle year of a three-year contract. At the bottom of the range is a starting patrol officer making $62,235 this year. At the high end a top-level police captain at maximum would make $120,132 for the year.

Workers at the Highway Department and Parks and Recreation Department have a contract that goes from 2015 through June 2019. The pay scale this year starts with laborers making $25.26 an hour and goes up to top-level mechanics making $35.05 an hour.

They work a 40-hour workweek, so for 52 weeks that’s a range from $52,540 for the starting laborer to $72,904 for top mechanics.