OC Register Is Hot for Teacher . . . Salaries

Local educators fume as the daily publishes its latest salary database

As the Weekly first reported on our Navel Gazing news blog in late October, an Orange County Register editorial project that relies on the names, campuses and salaries of all 72,000 public-school workers in the county for a database of about 37,000 of those employees is riling many instructors.

The article “Public School Paychecks Hit Six Figures for 3,300” by Fermin Leal and Scott Martindale, along with a database that includes the names, schools and salaries of each of those employees, was published Nov. 14 by the Register, which plans to use more of the information culled from school districts in other stories and projects.

This has prompted educators to contact their local, regional and state union reps and express alarm over the Reg’s flurry of public-records requests, says Bill Guy, the communications consultant with the California Teachers Association (CTA) Region IV, which is based in San Diego but includes Orange County.

Curt Merlo

“Obviously, they are concerned,” Guy says.

While Guy found the Nov. 14 report “pretty reasonable,” he has a problem with printing the names of teachers. “They still haven’t convinced me that is necessary for their definition of transparency,” Guy says.

In an interview with the Weekly before the first pieces were published, Guy explained that some school employees may be victims of stalking, involved in child-custody battles or facing other threatening situations that would necessitate keeping their names and locations private. “We understand these are public employees,” Guy said, “but we don’t think that means we should put someone’s life in danger like that.”

Guy conceded the CTA’s larger concern involved the way the salary information could be used, such as marrying the amount an individual teacher makes with the scores his or her students achieve on statewide tests. He pointed to national studies that indicate looking at test scores taken by one set of students at one given time or two completely different sets of students at two different times are not accurate reflections of teacher performance.

The CTA favors a “value-added” approach that tracks teacher performance over several years, but, Guy noted, even that can give a tainted view if factors such as student mobility and the education and resources of a particular school’s parents are not considered.

Teachers take media rankings seriously, says Guy, who pointed to a September Los Angeles Times series that used a value-added methodology to rate 6,000 unionized teachers based upon student test scores in LA. A teacher committed suicide a few days after the report’s publication; those who knew him claim he became despondent after its release.

Applying “scarlet letters” to teachers does not help improve education, says Guy, adding that instructors were already used as piñatas in the just-concluded statewide election. “It’s like that old saying,” he says, “‘We’re going to keep beating you until morale improves.’”

But Orange County Register education editor William Diepenbrock told the Weekly on Nov. 16, “My phone is ringing frequently, and my e-mail is filling with comments from people—including educators—asking questions about specifics or suggesting stories to pursue.

“Many are hungry for more information—about extra duty, education and experience—that we haven’t yet obtained from school districts,” Diepenbrock added. “Many would also like to somehow see a review of the real hours teachers work, beyond their contract days, though, obviously, that’s not something tracked.”

Comments to online versions of the article and database show “many celebrating teachers and administrators for hard work and dedication, while others question the pay structure for schools and the way in which additional duty or vacation payouts can elevate compensation,” according to Diepenbrock, who wrote in a previous e-mail to the Weekly that education salary data will find its way into several endeavors, including the California Project, “which examines why the state struggles on so many fronts. School funding—and spending—is one of those.”

Diepenbrock, noting that salaries “are the biggest element of school spending,” wrote that the data fit in with the daily’s series of databases on government salaries. “This would be third or fourth in the current series (we’ve done this in the past, too),” he wrote. “This is sort of basic accountability that’s become more prominent since the Bell scandal.”

Guy also mentioned the embattled southeast Los Angeles County city as he explained the CTA would “understand” comparisons of school-administrator salaries. At a time when scores of teachers are getting pink slips, many superintendents are taking home fortunes, he alleged.

A Register database on OC employees was published before the Bell scandal broke, sparking an uproar among those employees. The public-school version created another one weeks before the publication of the first story related to the public information. “I have a bad feeling about what the Register’s angle will be and its impact upon a libertarian-leaning community that is already angry and on edge due to the state of the economy,” confides a North County teacher who requests anonymity. “We’re bracing for the worst.”

“As you might guess, we’re getting a great deal of concern from some over the release of this information, and so we’re going a little slowly to try to respond carefully to those concerns,” Diepenbrock wrote in his pre-publication e-mail to the Weekly. That may have shaped his Nov. 3 message to Register readers about the impending project.

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