OC Register Is Hot for Teacher . . . Salaries

Curt Merlo

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.

“Obviously, they are concerned,” Guy says.

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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.

“School employees,” he wrote, “perform one of the most critical tasks in our society. They educate and keep safe our children, beset often by challenges stemming from growing class sizes, shrinking resources and a multitude of responsibilities that extend beyond simply conveying grammar, math, history and science to our children.”

Diepenbrock conceded in his message to the paper’s readers that the project has been met with resistance, consternation—even lawsuit threats. As for calls that the daily release its employees’ salary information, he explained, “We are employees in a private industry. As such, our salaries are already known to our stakeholders—those who own and manage our company.”

The Huntington Beach Union High School District (HBUHSD) held out the longest in providing information for the Register database, which includes all 27 public-school systems in the county and the Orange County Department of Education.

In an Oct. 19 letter to all HBUHSD employees, Deborah M. Coleman, the assistant superintendent in charge of human resources, explained the district wanted to make extra-sure it must release the data, but in the end, “it has been determined that the requested information is within the rights of the Register and our district must relinquish this data.”

She attached an Oct. 6 letter written by Diepenbrock on Register letterhead to the district’s records supervisor requesting the names, job titles, work locations, employment status (certificated, classified, pupil services, administration or other), full or part-time status, years of service in the district and/or educational attainment (step and column), the district step and column key, base salaries, and details on elevating base salaries to total pay for all employees.

The Santa Ana-based daily further requested such information of every district employee making more than $100,000 per year. If no teacher was identified earning that much, the district was to single out its highest-paid teacher, with the salary and all other data.

Diepenbrock wrote it’s not the paper’s intent to publish the salaries of the district’s lowest-paid employees, and anyone with “potentially life-threatening situations” that could arise from their information being published was directed to provide him documentation. These exclusions are the reason the final published database will include about 37,000 workers rather than all 72,000, he explained.

In light of Diepenbrock’s demand, Coleman disclosed in her message, “Individual employees DO NOT need to provide any of the information requested by The Orange County Register. The district office will be responding to the public-records request and providing the data that is being requested.” Three times in the message, Coleman advised employees to contact Diepenbrock directly if they had problems with any of it—and included the editor’s phone number each time.

When it comes to fears about the Register’s reporting, the CTA is considering the source. The Freedom Communications flagship has had a bad reputation among educators ever since its late owner, libertarian icon R.C. Hoiles, dictated that reporters must refer to “public schools” as “taxpayer-supported schools.” Guy says the war on public education continues on the Register op-ed page and in some pointed news stories.

“We do feel they have a history of bias against public education,” he says, “so that causes concern.”



This article appeared in print as "Hot for Teacher . . . Salaries: Local educators fume as The Orange County Register publishes latest salary database."

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