Three weeks before the high school football season kicks off, an administrative assistant at Lake Travis High School is juggling phone calls while season ticket holders wait to learn their seat assignments.
Lake Travis played its 2017 season opener in front of an audience that included those watching on Fox Sports Southwest, the first time that the University Interscholastic League (or UIL) allowed live broadcasts of Friday night games.
The Cavaliers are a powerhouse. They won their sixth state title in 2016. In 2011 they became the first team in the history of Texas high school football to win five consecutive state championships.
Five of their state six championships have come under two coaches: Chad Morris, now at SMU, and his successor, Hank Carter, who’s entering his 10th season at the school, which is about 20 miles northwest of Austin.
Carter is the highest-paid high school football coach in Texas, with an annual salary of $155,156. That’s $30,000 more than the principal at Lake Travis and almost triple the average salary of the school’s teachers.
“There’s no doubt Hank Carter is well paid,” Lake Travis Superintendent Brad Lancaster said.
His district is one of the state’s most affluent. The median household income is $103,000 and million-dollar homes dot the shores of Lake Travis.
“I think that’s a little bit market-driven, it’s driven by experience and by accomplishment ... and it also has to do with what this community desires,” Lancaster said. “I think if Hank Carter left Lake Travis under my watch, the community would be wondering whether I was fit to serve.”
Taxpayers in the state’s large suburban school districts are consistently funding six-figure salaries for head football coaches, per records obtained by the Star-Telegram through the state’s Public Information Act.
In June, the Star-Telegram made 205 requests for the salaries of every head football coach and principal at the state’s 5A and 6A schools and with the results created a searchable database to analyze results of the request.
Is it too much?
There are no limits on what Texas high school football coaches can be paid, as long as school boards vote to approve contracts set by administrators.
So how much is too much? It depends who you ask.
“Our society places a lot of value on Friday night lights and our high school football teams,” said Steven Poole, executive director of the United Educators Association, which advocates for teachers in DFW. “I’m hoping someday society places that high of a value on teachers.”
Sue Morton is a retired educator who spent seven years teaching in the Birdville school district and eight in Dallas.
“My vote is yes, that’s too big of a disparity,” Morton said. “Football is made too big a deal of, and the latest example is that big new stadium in Katy. Most people would probably disagree with me, but that’s the way I feel.”
The Katy school district’s Morton Ranch High School is named after her family. The district is home to a new $72 million stadium and the eight-time state champion Katy Tigers, whose coach Gary Joseph earns $133,102.
Statewide, football coaches earn an average of $98,668. The average salary for a high school teacher is $55,221. Principals at the state’s 5A and 6A schools (those with enrollments of 1,100 or more) earn an average of $117,744, according to the Star-Telegram’s analysis.
Suburban areas typically have better performing football teams than their urban counterparts. Salaries are also higher.
With an average salary of $103,566, coaches’ earnings at the state’s biggest suburban schools — those in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin and San Antonio areas — are almost double that of the teachers, therapists and nurses who work on campus with them.
DFW suburban football coaches are some of the highest paid in the state, earning $106,619. The Arlington and Hurst-Euless-Bedford school districts pay their coaches just under $110,000.
Administrators say the pool of qualified candidates for head coaches, many of whom are also the athletic coordinators at their campuses, is smaller than the pool of qualified teachers. That drives up the cost for top talent.
“Right now, if I need a third-grade teacher, if I go to HR, I probably have 400 applications on file for people who want to be a third-grade teacher,” said superintendent Tom Leonard of the Eanes school district, where Austin Westlake coach Todd Dodge earns $131,600.
“And I’m not against third-grade teachers. I want to go on record and say that we need to pay teachers more money throughout the state of Texas. But if I need a principal or an AD, my numbers go down significantly, because there’s just not as many people in that pool.”
Dodge is one of 28 coaches in the state who earns more than $120,000 and one of five who earns $130,000 or more. He won four state titles at Southlake Carroll from 2002-06, leading the Dragons to a 79-1 record.
At Lake Travis, Carter puts in more than 80 hours a week during football season. That slows down slightly in the off-season, he says, because of heavy scheduling and hiring duties associated with being his district’s athletic director.
“It’s probably well-deserved,” said Sean McAuliffe, head coach at San Antonio-area power Converse Judson, who is paid $105,320. “With that revenue, I would imagine it’s well worth it. So for the amount of hours that people put in, the compensation should match.”
Westlake’s Dodge also serves as his district’s athletic director.
Superintendents at both districts said the dual role of their football coaches allows them to save money because they’re not paying another administrator.
Fans of North Texas powers Southlake Carroll and Aledo may be surprised to find that their coaches’ salaries are not in that top tier of pay.
Carroll’s Hal Wasson, in his 29th year as a head coach, earns $115,126. Wood, in his fourth year as head coach of the Bearcats, might be one of the biggest bargains in the state at $95,003.
“Steve is underpaid. I know that,” said former Aledo coach and current athletic director Tim Buchanan. “But at the same time, our teachers are underpaid. Aledo is a school district that doesn’t have a whole lot of extra money to spend on salaries.”
Neither Wood nor Wasson are athletic directors, and neither like to spend their days quibbling over how much they’re getting paid. Wasson said he started at $88,000 when he came to Southlake Carroll in 2007. Buchanan said he first heard of a coach’s salary eclipsing $40,000 in 1983 when Doug Etheridge moved from Port Neches-Grove to Round Rock.
“Do I think coaches are overpaid? Absolutely not,” Wasson said. “Ask anyone to hang around with us and see the hours we keep, and they’d know right away.”
The top teams in Texas bring revenue back to their schools.
Playoff teams share gate receipts from their games, after expenses and after the UIL, or governing body, takes its cut, either 16 percent for playoff games or 20 percent for the state championship. More than 245,000 people watched the state championships at AT&T Stadium in 2016.
“How much does the football program’s gate do for our other sports?” asked Lancaster, the Lake Travis superintendent. “We get 50- or 60-grand checks for just playing in the state championship game, the last two years in a row.”
But for Lancaster, neither that revenue generation nor the economy of high school football really gets at the reason for the pay disparity between a football coach and a teacher.
“If you’re the English III teacher at the high school, and you’re making $55,000 a year, you work very hard,” Lancaster said. “Can I say that the football coach that makes 100-, 110- or 120-grand works twice as hard as you? No.
“Kindergarten teachers, high school teachers, or, to put it on more equal footing, head band directors, all work extremely hard, but they don’t make the same amount of money, and I don’t think that at face value you can give a satisfactory explanation for that.
“It’s a market-driven pay differential.”
Staff writer Kevin Lonnquist contributed to this report.
High school football salaries: methodology
In June, Star-Telegram reporters and editors filed 205 requests under the state’s Public Information Act for the salaries of all head football coaches and principals at the state’s 5A and 6A schools. Both positions are funded by taxpayers.
The 499 schools had enrollments of 1,100 or more in October 2015, when officials reported their student counts to the UIL for the latest realignment. At the time, 79 percent of the state’s 1.49 million high school students were attending those schools.
All of them responded. Some districts waited 10 business days before releasing the records even though the law requires that they “promptly” produce public information in response to an open records request.
Under the law, promptly “means as soon as possible under the circumstances, that is, within a reasonable time, without delay,” according to the Public Information Handbook from the state attorney general’s office.
According to the handbook: “It is a common misconception that a governmental body may wait ten business days before releasing the information. In fact ... the requirement is to produce information ‘promptly.’”
The Houston school district provided the teaching salaries for its coaches and referred the Star-Telegram to the district’s stipend schedule to calculate their total compensation.
Under the stipend schedule, coaches earn more if their teams participate in spring football. So their salaries were calculated under the assumption they led those drills since the practices are common across the state.
Kevin Casas, Drew Davison, Brian Gosset, Shawn Smajstrla, Jimmy Burch, Matt Martinez, Stefan Stevenson, Eric Zarate, David Humphrey and Tom Johanningmeier contributed to this report.