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What's fair? School administrators' salaries in crosshairs

New committee promises to analyze administrative pay


TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Superintendent Carole Smith says her administrators are paid below market rate and she would like to be able to offer a top salary that is better than three-fourths of comparable districts. As the new Portland Public Schools board members take their seats, there is one question they know they must answer to the public’s satisfaction: What are fair salaries for the district’s administrators?

During the campaign, administrative salaries became a top election issue on revelations that many administrators making more than $80,000 per year had seen significant percentage increases in the past four years — many in the double-digits. Supporters said the increases were planned to keep pace with comparable districts, but others, including three board members, said they felt blindsided and questioned whether the district had gone through the proper steps.

“Do we have legitimate reasons for the raises or do we not?” Director Steve Buel asked during an April 14 discussion on the need for the board audit committee to hire a professional auditor.

That auditor hadn’t been hired by the end of May as originally expected. But new Director Mike Rosen said that, as chairman of the audit committee, he expected to have a name for board approval by the end of July.

Gwen Sullivan, Portland Association of Teachers union president, said she’s pleased by the rapid shift.

“It was weird that these board meetings were talking about this week after week,” Sullivan said. “And then immediately (after the board change-over) that’s the first thing on the agenda and it’s in. It’s definitely a different direction.”

Director Amy Kohnstamm, who routed three-term incumbent Bobbie Regan with promises of being more critical of the administration, said she has a clear picture of why teachers and other union positions are paid what they are because of the public bargaining processes. But when it comes to non-represented central office staff, the numbers are more murky to outside observers.

“(A salary audit is) important in terms of transparency,” Kohnstamm said. “Most of us (on the board) feel that this is the type of issue worth revisiting.”

The new board audit committee — approved in a slew of committee assignments July 6 as Director Tom Koehler asserted his new power as board chairman to bring back the committee form of governance (see sidebar) — has a review of administrative positions and salaries as its top priority.

“It is a challenge to the status quo,” Sullivan said. “It is challenging a district that has said they are transparent when they are not.”

It remains to be seen whether the resulting report will satisfy public distaste for an administrative salary range of $95,604 to $125,849, which is 62 to 151 percent higher than the teacher salary range of $38,046 to $77,366.

What is Portland’s market?

PPS critics often mention the size of the administration and administrative salaries, particularly the 28-percent raise approved last August for Superintendent Carole Smith.

In response to the April controversy over the central office staff raises, the Human Resources Department presented its plan, which is to get administrators’ maximum salaries to the 75th percentile of similar positions in comparable districts. PPS administrators currently make less than the median, the 50th percentile, the department calculated.

“We’re way out of market,” said Superintendent Smith, noting that the data the HR staff presented were already out-of-date as salaries tend to go up every year. “We’re going to continue to be in this position where we are working to be competitive and be in the market.”

But while most policy advocates agree Portland Public Schools’ administrators should be paid at or above a market rate to attract and retain qualified people, the controversy comes from determining which school districts are comparable — what is Portland’s market?

“PPS HR has a pattern of using grossly inappropriate comps (such as Chicago, Atlanta and L.A. — larger districts in much larger cities),” new board member Paul Anthony said in an email. “... As one example, in a recent presentation (HR Director) Sean Murray gave to the CBRC (Citizen Budget Review Committee), defending the size of the HR Department, he was using comps that were literally the major U.S. cities — Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta were specifically mentioned.”

PPS spokesman Jon Isaacs said in April that, at 4.4 percent, PPS’ administration has a smaller-than-average portion of the budget among members of the Council of Great City Schools, which he said averaged 8 percent. The Council of Great City Schools is an organization of 67 urban school districts, from Anchorage and Denver to Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

Council of Great City Schools spokesman Henry Duvall refuted Isaacs’ figure, however, saying that member school districts’ administrations typically take up about 3 to 5 percent of their budgets.

“Portland Public Schools would seem to be in line with the norm,” Duvall said. He added that while the group keeps track of superintendent salaries, they do not have data on upper-management salaries.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: SHASTA KEARNS MOORE - The new Portland Public Schools board members took their seats for the first time July 6 and immediately started making changes, such as the reformation of five committees. The Audit Committees top priority is a review of administrative salaries.

Times are good

This could be coming up now because for the first time in years, Portland Public Schools isn’t looking at budget cuts.

Larry Daniels, a human resources consultant and principal at Milliman actuary firm in Seattle, said that while in the corporate world, employees are typically given annual reviews and salary adjustments, “in the public sector, it’s more likely to be based on the budget for that entity.”

Senior Human Resources Business Partner Julie Ralston of Portland-based Boly:Welch agreed.

“That’s the downside about being in a non-union environment in the public sectors ... you don’t always get those raises that the unions get,” Ralston said, noting that cost-of-living adjustments tend to only be given to management in good times. “I would say the non-represented pay increases are typically less and less frequent than the union positions.”

Ralston said that in her work for government bodies, she would look at similar-size districts in Oregon.

“Typically for government we would look in the Portland area and Salem,” she said.

Daniels said he would analyze where employees typically come from and where they go afterward in order to determine the market.

“That’s one of the prime factors,” Daniels said. “If we’re losing our folks to a certain school district or a certain company, let’s find out why.”

Money talks, but who walks?

Portland Public Schools officials did not return requests for comment on whether they gather data about where their employees come from or go. They did offer a graph noting the 18 districts they consider in their peer group, which include Beaverton, Salem-Keizer and most of the Multnomah County school districts. It also includes school districts in Washington, such as Seattle and Vancouver. It did not include larger metropolitan cities or cities outside of the Pacific Northwest.

But union president Sullivan still has her doubts. When the union filed a records request for the data behind Superintendent Smith’s assertion that teachers are paid in the 75th percentile of the market, they feel they got only partial records.

“What data is being used for this? Because that’s just not the case,” she said.

Sullivan said she recently tried to pick up a top-quality Reynolds School District librarian.

“She got offered a number of jobs and she didn’t pick (PPS) because she said she would work more but be paid less,” Sullivan said.

In deciding a salary peer group, Daniels said: “In general for compensation it depends on where you draw talent from and where you lose folks to. Sometimes it’s a local market that’s really a driving factor, but sometimes it’s a national market.”

But, the Seattle consultant noted, working environment can sometimes be just as important a factor as salary.

“I think there’s a lot of other factors besides pay,” he said. “How employees are treated, sometimes that can override the portion of pay.”

Melissa Goff, who left Portland Public Schools after less than a year of being assistant superintendent, said money wasn’t the driving factor in her decision to accept the superintendency at Philomath School District.

“I had a very positive experience in PPS,” Goff said, noting her ties to the community near Oregon State University. “What I really wanted for me and my family was a smaller district.”


CHANGE IN THE WIND

The swearing in of four new board members has already led to new direction at Portland Public Schools.

Two-year incumbent Tom Koehler was elected board chair with Amy Kohnstamm elected vice chair. The leadership team then reinstituted a committee form of government, something new board member Paul Anthony advocated for on the campaign trail.

  • The Budget and Operations Committee will be Mike Rosen and Koehler with Anthony as chairman. Its top priorities will be creating internal and public budgets that are easy to understand.
  • The School Improvement Bond Committee will be Pam Knowles and Anthony with Kohnstamm as chairwoman. Its top priorities will be planning for a new construction bond for schools other than high schools and reviewing current bond work.
  • The Teaching and Learning Committee will be Kohnstamm and Julie Esparza Brown with Steve Buel as chairman. Its top priorities will include tackling graduation rates, testing issues and principal placement.
  • The Audit Committee will be Anthony, Knowles and Rosen as chairman. Its top priorities will be hiring an independent auditor, performing up to three audits in the next year and reviewing implementation of the last three years of audits.
  • The Charter Committee will be Brown and Kohnstamm, and chaired by Knowles. Its priorities will be reviewing charter school applications and district policy regarding charter schools.
  • CORRECTION: Updated July 17 to reflect that Amy Kohnstamm was elected vice chair, not Paul Anthony.


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