SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — A former Chicago charter schools executive is earning $250,000 a year to spearhead Gov. Bruce Rauner's top education initiatives, a salary that is more than double what her predecessors received and places her as the highest-paid member of a Cabinet already under scrutiny for its lofty paychecks.
For weeks, Beth Purvis' role in the administration had been somewhat of a mystery. There was no formal announcement when she was hired, and during a House education committee meeting earlier this month, she stood and introduced herself when someone on the panel asked if anyone from the governor's office was in attendance.
Not until after several inquiries from The Associated Press did the Rauner administration disclose that Purvis — a key member of the governor's transition team — is now earning $250,000 a year to advise him on education policy. Purvis is being paid as an independent contractor and accepting neither state health nor retirement benefits, according to the governor's office.
From 2003 until last year, Purvis, who holds a doctorate in special education, served as CEO of the Chicago International Charter School, a network of 15 schools in Chicago and Rockford. She previously worked as a special education teacher in Maryland and Tennessee, as a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and served on education advisory councils under the last two Illinois governors.
In an interview with the AP, Purvis said her salary is "commensurate with what I've been paid in the past" and cited her three decades of experience. Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly called Purvis "one of the few education experts in the country prepared to lead a true cradle to career approach to education."
But some Democratic lawmakers questioned whether the pay was appropriate for an employee of the state.
"We want the most talented people to take a turn serving in government," said Sen. Don Harmon of Oak Park. "But most all of us in public service are paid considerably less than if we used our talents in private enterprise. That sort of sacrifice is typically part of the public service deal."
The choice of Purvis also makes a statement about Rauner's priorities early in his tenure — a focus on lifting the state's cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state. And Rauner last month proposed a budget that included a $300 million increase to K-12 school funding next year while calling for cuts elsewhere, including a roughly $400 million decrease in funding to higher education to offset the bump.
Rauner already has come under fire for paying top members of his administration significantly more than their predecessors but criticizing the average state worker as overpaid. He's spent the first months of his tenure calling for "shared sacrifice" and issuing an executive order halting nonessential spending.
A review by The Associated Press earlier this year found annual salaries of 10 top employees in his administration far exceed those of comparable aides to former Gov. Pat Quinn by roughly $380,000 — or 36 percent.
Previous governors have hired point people on education, but they've largely also had other duties at the same time, state records show. Kristin Richards, who served as former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's point person on education, was paid $120,000 in 2008 to oversee education and the state's Department of Transportation. Gov. Pat Quinn's education adviser, Julie Smith, earned $110,000 annually between 2011 and 2014, state records show.
While Purvis' salary is high for a Cabinet secretary, it's in line with what local school administrators often earn. State records show that the average administrator's salary at the state's 860 districts made $101,096 last year, but are as high as $357,117, the annual salary of Marquardt District 15 superintendent Loren May. According to an analysis by the AP, 65 school superintendents' salaries were higher than $250,000 last year.
While her predecessors have interacted with lawmakers and state education officials, Purvis says she envisions having even more of a public presence.
"I've been charged by the governor to create a more cohesive and coherent educational experience," she said, adding that there are at least seven agencies in the state that deal with children and their educational trajectory.
"That's really confusing for parents. In fact, it's really confusing for me," she said.
Robin Steans, director of the education reform group Advance Illinois, called Purvis "no nonsense" and somebody who can successfully "block and tackle" for the administration.
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