Georgia’s highest-paid schools superintendent, J. Alvin Wilbanks in Gwinnett, had a base salary of $272,249 in 2009-2010.

Wilbanks declined one salary adjustment he was entitled to this year based on a slight rise in teacher compensation. But after factoring in the rest of his contractual add-ons, his total topped out at $390,556.

That includes payments twice a year for unused leave time, a perk that’s unusual among superintendents in metro Atlanta and unavailable to most teachers, at least until they retire.

Cobb County Schools Superintendent Fred Sanderson’s base salary was $210,596. Sanderson’s contract does not entitle him to receive any bonuses or annual leave payouts but he can be reimbursed for up to 40 vacation days “upon the conclusion of his employment,” said Jay Dillon, district spokesman.

Fulton County’s Superintendent Cindy Loe, an alumnus of the Gwinnett system, has an unused leave payout clause in her contract, which boosting her $225,208 base by $9,583 in the 2010 fiscal year. Add the rest, including $12,000 for expenses, and her overall pay was $270,068.

Performance bonuses. Payouts for unused leave time. Executive expense accounts. Car allowances. The extras can become enticements school boards use to help attract and retain execs already at the top of the scale.

“In most cases a school superintendent is chief executive officer or the largest employer in most counties,” explained Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association. “They run the largest restaurant business, they run the largest taxi service, they sign the checks for the largest number of employees. If you look at it from a private sector point of view, their salaries are a lot less than some in the private sector would make.”

In July, Wilbanks was paid for being healthy. He received $176.15 an hour for about a dozen unused sick days, adding up to $18,143. This month, he is eligible for another $28,360 payout for 20 unused vacation days. In addition, he received a retirement supplement of $42,000, a reimbursement for his contribution to his own retirement plan of $17,077 and a monthly expense allowance of $2,700 to cover transportation and business costs.

And when his two-year contract was re-negotiated in 2009, the board agreed to allow Wilbanks to spend 10 days each year telecommuting.

“I’ve never seen a more hard-working individual in charge of 22,500 employees,” said Mary Kay Murphy, school board chair. “It is something that he requested and it seemed reasonable.”

Metro Atlanta school systems like Cobb, DeKalb and Atlanta Public Schools will have to consider offering similar incentives to attract executives to lead their districts.

“If it is a large suburban district, it is not unusual about that district furnishing a benefits package that might include an automobile or … money in a tax sheltered annuity,” Garrett said.

Atlanta Public Schools superintendent Beverly Hall accepted a $78,115.82 bonus last school year linked to student achievement in 2008-2009 at a time when the district began facing allegations of possible cheating at several schools. At the time, she also received a cellphone stipend of $1,200 and a car allowance of $666, overall boosting her pay to $371,094. School officials said Hall declined to ask for a bonus to be paid this school year citing economic reasons. Her base salary grew slightly from $264,350 to $264,772.

The particulars of superintendent compensation are being scrutinized not only by search committees looking for replacements, but by teachers and taxpayers.

“Right now, with the fact that teachers in most cases are working for less money this year, and pay has really gone flat, I think school systems have to really be conscious about how things look,” said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. “Everybody is watching everything.”

Gwinnett Schools spokeswoman Sloan Roach said Wilbanks’ contract “takes into account that with more than 40 years of service he has maxed out what he can earn through the retirement system and he has far exceeded what he can accumulate in terms of vacation and sick leave.”

Demming Bass, vice president of communications for the Gwinnett Chamber, said Wilbanks led the district as it won the Nobel equivalent for public schools this year, the Broad Prize for Urban Education, given to large systems that narrow the achievement gap. “Imagine that you were the owner of a business and had one of your best years in terms of performance, but because of the economy you don’t get a raise; that doesn’t mean you aren’t worth every penny that you’re given.”

But some parents and teachers don’t see it that way.

“With everything that is going on in Gwinnett, especially for the teachers who were fired and can’t find work, I think it sends the wrong message,” said Snellville mom Monise Seward.

Concerned about appearances, Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield, who receives $176,871 annually, turned down a $7,800 bonus he was entitled to receive. He was offered the money because his district met performance goals on standardized tests, among other things.

“For the past two contract years although Superintendent Schofield has qualified for the 5 percent bonus, he has not accepted it,” said Gordon Higgins, district spokesman. “His rationale has been that it would not be appropriate for him to accept a bonus … in tough economic times with employees within our system facing furlough days.”