While researching a policy paper arguing that public schools were losing an opportunity to recruit topnotch teachers by downplaying, even degrading, the economic rewards of teaching, I asked my local school district how much a senior teacher (not a beginning or average teacher) could earn.  In response, I was referred to the salary schedule negotiated with the local teachers’ union.  The schedule is a two dimensional grid that includes a teacher’s years of work in the vertical column and education credits in the horizontal column.

But this did not provide the sought information.  Four major categories of compensation were missing: out-of-district deferred compensation (primarily pensions), in-district deferred compensation (primarily retirement health insurance), out-of-district current compensation (including teacher-based higher education tuition reimbursement, subsidized workforce housing, fees for mentoring student teachers, bonuses for holding National Board Certification, and bonuses for working in a teacher shortage area), and in-district current compensation (including health, dental, and vision insurance; unused sick and personal days; signing bonuses; extracurricular activity bonuses; and performance bonuses for teaching in Title I schools and schools making adequate yearly progress).

If I added every conceivable source of compensation a teacher could earn, I got a figure of over $1 million/year.  Clearly, this was a ridiculous way to calculate how much a real teacher could earn.

So how much did actual, flesh-and-blood teachers earn at the top of the earnings pyramid?  My school district published absolutely no data to answer this question.  Thus, I filed a Public Information Act request to answer it.   The school district replied that any information about benefits is confidential information and not subject to disclosure under this Act.  This includes the information necessary to calculate deferred compensation, which over-a-teacher’s lifetime may equal or exceed total lifetime salary.

The law clearly states, however, that school salary information is public.  I thus asked for that information in a structured, electronic format so I could statistically analyze it.  The school district had recently invested in a multimillion dollar state-of-the-art computer-based personnel information system.  But it replied that I could only receive the salary information in a document format.  If I wanted to statistically analyze the data, I’d have to rekey it myself.

After months of Public Information Act requests, the school district finally sent me a small subset of the compensation data I originally sought.  The data listed every teacher’s total salary (the peak salary was $131,475).  Simultaneously, the school district emailed every employee not only that their salary information is public information (as specified by law) but that I, a parent, asked for that information.  Naturally, many of the employees were furious and directed their ire at me and my family.  After all, nobody likes their compensation information made public.

Intimidating those seeking compensation data is not new or unique.  For example, the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association in 2000 sent out auditors to 23 of Maryland’s 24 counties seeking to use the Public Information Act to access the school superintendent’s contract.  The auditors were successful in less than half the cases.  In my district, when the auditor asked for the school superintendent’s contract, he was not only not given the contract but escorted to a special room where a school police officer questioned him as a possible suspect in the unsolved case of someone who had made murder threats against the superintendent.

To find out how much public school teachers at the top of their profession earn, I should never have had to file a Public Information Act request and deal with the harassment and cumbersome manual data analysis that ensued.  As a routine matter, school districts should provide on their public websites the range of lowest to highest teacher compensation data by decile (e.g., the amount of the highest paid teacher, the teacher at the 10% decile, and the teacher at the 20% decile).  The reporting for this compensation should be based on national accounting standards and include all compensation earned in the current accounting period, including deferred and out-of-district compensation, both of which have become an increasingly large fraction of compensation.

A good legislative vehicle to accomplish this would be the bill reauthorizing NCLB, which already is expected to contain many provisions for modernizing the gathering and distribution of school district level data.  The modernization program includes generating local data with national standards and then making the data easily accessible online.

In any case, forcing citizens to resort to the Public Information Act to access compensation information is no longer acceptable, especially because school districts already computerize this information for internal purposes.  With the exception of social security numbers or other unique identification information, schools should be required to proactively publish this information online so citizens can access it without undue effort and risk of harassment.

 –J.H. Snider. The writer is president of iSolon.org. He is a former school board member and has written widely on education policy.

Source: Snider, J.H., “Public School Systems Should Post Compensation Data Online,” Washington Examiner, March 18, 2009.