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Raimondo’s ‘toughest’ cabinet job among lowest paid in state, region

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – There’s widespread agreement that Rhode Island needs to attract the best and brightest to serve as the next director of R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families.

But you’d never guess it looking at the salary.

The high-stakes position — tasked with keeping safe about 3,600 Rhode Island children in foster care and group homes — is compensated relatively poorly in Rhode Island compared with other New England states, even though the director is often the subject of intense public scrutiny locally.

The dynamic played out earlier this year when outgoing director Trista Piccola was urged to resign during a legislative oversight hearing after a 9-year-old girl under state supervision was found dead in a bathtub in Warwick.

“It’s the hardest job in state government barring none,” said state Sen. Lou DiPalma, D-Middletown, a longtime advocate for DCYF. “The base salary needs to be commensurate with the job we’re asking people to do.”   

The position earns an annual salary of $127,501, which is more than double the median household income of $61,043 in Rhode Island. But it falls short of similar jobs in other states, including Massachusetts, where Department of Children and Families commissioner Linda Spears makes about 10% more with $140,000.

In Connecticut, DCF Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes makes about 35% more with a salary of $172,000. Even Vermont, with a population about 60% the size of Rhode Island, pays DCF Commissioner Kenneth Schatz $127,400, which is about the same as Piccola’s salary.

State leaders acknowledge it matters how competitively Rhode Island pays compared with other states.

“The governor is committed to ensuring Rhode Island is competitive in attracting top-tier talent to critical leadership positions by ensuring that compensation is in line with that of comparable positions in neighboring states,” said Jennifer Bogdan, spokesperson for Gov. Gina Raimondo, who added the director’s pay would be evaluated as part of the hiring process.  

The position has already been posted with the same salary level as Piccola’s, and any future change would require Raimondo’s support, as House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio noted in a joint statement.

“The DCYF director has one of the toughest jobs in state government. The agency has had a myriad of problems, and it is important to get the right person in place,” the two Democratic legislative leaders said. “A salary increase may be appropriate, but if one is proposed it should be built into the governor’s budget submission and the normal process should be followed.”

Authorizing a salary increase must happen through a public hearing process, which is then communicated to the House and Senate for consideration. If lawmakers don’t move to reject the increase within 30 days, it goes into effect.

Raimondo has proposed pay hikes for many of her other cabinet members in the past, including this year for Public Safety Superintendent James Manni (who earns $186,000), Department of Labor and Training Director Scott Jensen ($155,000) and Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott ($140,000).

But the second-term Democrat so far has never proposed increasing the DCYF director’s pay.

The position is also one of the lowest-paying among Raimondo’s 21 cabinet members, second only to R.I. Elderly Affairs Director Rose Amoros Jones, who earns $120,123. And it pales in comparison to the cabinet’s top earners, including Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor, who makes $219,367 per year.

Pryor’s Executive Office of Commerce has 16 full-time positions and a $68 million budget compared to DCYF’s 629 full-time positions and $228 million budget, according to fiscal 2019-20 budget estimates. However, Pryor’s staff notes he also oversees the quasi-public Commerce and Quonset Development Corps., as well as the Department of Business Regulation, which would increase his headcount to a combined 285.

A majority of Raimondo’s cabinet is currently female, with 11 women and 10 men, although the median salary for men totals $152,820 compared to $135,000 for women.

The top-paid cabinet member is a woman: the newly hired education commissioner, Angélica Infante-Green, whose position and pay offers the sharpest contrast to the DCYF director’s position.

The commissioner – like the DCYF director – is responsible for children, manages an agency dealing with crisis and is regularly in the headlines.

Unlike the DCYF director, however, Infante-Green makes $231,726 and is slated to receive two pay increases in the coming years. And while Raimondo doesn’t have direct control over Infante-Green’s salary, which is set by the R.I. Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, the governor does have influence over what’s considered and makes recommendations.

Infante-Green’s spokesperson, Meg Geoghegan, said the commissioner’s salary — which is a continuation of the same contract offered to her predecessor Ken Wagner — was not the primary factor behind her decision to come to Rhode Island.

“The opportunities to effect systemic change for students on this scale are few and far between, and she was and continues to be excited by the chance to be a transformational leader in Rhode Island,” Geoghegan said.

But Infante-Green’s salary is regionally competitive, ranking the second-highest among all other education commissioners in New England, second only to Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeff Riley ($241,000).

And Infante-Green has been successful in taking quick action, as she’s poised to take over the struggling Providence public school system. (As it happens, Riley headed the effort behind a state takeover of Lawrence schools — a model for Providence — after that district went into receivership in 2011.)

How successful the Raimondo administration will be in filling Piccola’s job with a similarly empowered individual will be answered in the coming month. But newly appointed Health and Human Services Secretary Womazetta Jones – who’s charged with finding a replacement – is bullish the job will attract veteran candidates.

“I think we will find a seasoned professional who understands and believes in this work and, most importantly, can effect change in child welfare practice in Rhode Island,” Jones said.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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