Mary­land should be truth­ful in re­port­ing teacher pay

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - J.H. SNIDER SEVERNA PARK

The high­est-paid teacher in the Mary­land county where I live earned more than $150,850 a year in salary alone. But you’d never know that from the salary sta­tis­tics pub­lished by the Mary­land State Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion.

The sta­tis­tics for be­gin­ning, mid-level and max­i­mum salaries are based on sched­ules, not ac­tual salaries. But a teacher’s salary sched­ule — based on years of ex­pe­ri­ence and de­grees — merely sets base pay. In my county, one’s salary sched­ule po­si­tion is only one of 72 pay codes. A small sam­ple of other pay codes in­clude ex­tracur­ric­u­lars (e.g., coach­ing), teach­ing sum­mer school, un­used leave and over­time. Such omis­sions ex­plain how the max­i­mum pay on the salary sched­ule may be re­ported as $96,114 but one teacher earned $150,850.

MSDE re­ports salary sched­ule sta­tis­tics in a ta­ble com­par­ing the 24 Mary­land school dis­tricts. But the num­bers don’t lend them­selves to mean­ing­ful com­pa­ra­bil­ity. For ex­am­ple, the num­ber of work days per year that de­fines a 10-month teacher, work hours per day and work years to reach the max­i­mum pay level each varies by more than 10 per­cent. Teach­ers on a 12-month (260-day) sched­ule may earn 36 per­cent more than those on a 10-month (191-day) sched­ule. Coun­ter­in­tu­itively, mid-level salary ranges can de­crease when salaries dra­mat­i­cally in­crease, as hap­pened in my county when many in­ter­me­di­ate steps were added to the salary sched­ule.

MSDE also pub­lishes an “av­er­age” salary statis­tic based on ac­tual teacher salaries. This statis­tic takes the cake for ob­fus­ca­tion, as MSDE claims not to even know the de­tailed method­ol­ogy lo­cal school dis­tricts use to gen­er­ate it. MSDE’s breath­tak­ingly short in­struc­tion to dis­tricts is: “Re­port an­nual salaries for the 2015-2016 school year, in­clud­ing bonuses, stipends, etc.”

In 2008, I started us­ing Mary­land’s Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act to re­quest raw salary data from Anne Arun­del County Pub­lic Schools. My in­tent was to trans­form this data into use­ful sta­tis­tics. In re­sponse, AACPS com­plained to the Mary­land Gen­eral Assem­bly that salary-re­lated in­for­ma­tion at an in­di­vid­ual level shouldn’t be pub­lic in­for­ma­tion and emailed thou­sands of its em­ploy­ees com­plain­ing that I had re­quested such in­for­ma­tion. The re­sult: My phone rang off the hook with an­gry em­ploy­ees. Be­cause I had chil­dren in the school and the email re­cip­i­ents in­cluded my chil­dren’s teach­ers, I ended my quest to gather and an­a­lyze the data.

Once my kids grad­u­ated, how­ever, I de­cided to con­tinue it. Dur­ing each of the past three years, I re­quested the raw salary-re­lated data. Even iden­ti­fy­ing it was hard: AACPS con­sid­ers the pay­roll fields in its $4.5 mil­lion pay­roll soft­ware sys­tem to be con­fi­den­tial, as the op­er­at­ing man­ual with that in­for­ma­tion is the soft­ware ven­dor’s pro­pri­etary in­for­ma­tion.

AACPS agreed that salary in­for­ma­tion was pub­lic in­for­ma­tion, and it usu­ally re­sponded to my Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act re­quests within the 30 days re­quired by law. But the data it pro­vided had ma­te­rial flaws, al­beit vary­ing, in­clud­ing teach­ers whose salaries would be more than $200,000 a year if their part-time work was nor­mal­ized to full-time; full-timee­quiv­a­lent (FTE) to­tals for fis­cal years that added up to more than AACPS’s widely re­ported FTE to­tals; re­ported salary data with­out the re­quested FTE data to de­ter­mine what the FTE salary data would be; missing pay codes that were cov­ered un­der my Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act re­quests; changes from year to year in the method­olo­gies used to re­port in­di­vid­ual pay codes and salaries with­out any ac­knowl­edg­ment or ex­pla­na­tion of the changed method­olo­gies; and ar­bi­trary changes from year to year in the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the law re­gard­ing which in­di­vid­ual pay codes were legally pub­lic in­for­ma­tion.

De­spite MSDE’s claim that the de­tailed method­ol­ogy for cal­cu­lat­ing av­er­age salary was lo­cally de­ter­mined, AACPS re­fused to pro­vide any in­for­ma­tion about its method­ol­ogy other than MSDE’s gen­eral guide­lines.

No Mary­land cit­i­zen should have to en­dure such in­tim­i­da­tion, ef­fort and ex­pense to get pub­lic data. For­tu­nately, a very sim­ple and in­ex­pen­sive so­lu­tion ex­ists: MSDE should dis­close on Mary­land’s Open Data Por­tal all the raw salary data that is legally pub­lic, in­clud­ing ac­tual salaries. With such data, the pub­lic could ver­ify MSDE’s pub­lished sta­tis­tics. More im­por­tant, it could gen­er­ate its own sta­tis­tics on po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive ques­tions that MSDE and lo­cal dis­tricts won’t gen­er­ate on their own.

Ad­ja­cent to the raw data should be MSDE’s ex­act method­ol­ogy for gen­er­at­ing its salary sta­tis­tics. MSDE should re­place its rigged sta­tis­tics with the con­ven­tional dis­play of salary dis­tri­bu­tions across an or­ga­ni­za­tion or oc­cu­pa­tion: For each em­ployee bar­gain­ing unit, in­clud­ing teach­ers, MSDE should pro­vide a sim­ple line graph show­ing to­tal salary at ev­ery per­cent­age, in­clud­ing ev­ery decile and the top 1 per­cent.

The politics of mak­ing pub­lic salary data mean­ing­fully pub­lic are daunt­ing. But politi­cians in other states have found the courage to do so. Mary­land’s will one day, too. The writer is pres­i­dent of iSolon.org.

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