An Orange County Register editorial project that relies on the names, campuses and salaries of all public school teachers in the county has riled many instructors, a state teacher union official confirmed.
This was most dramatically played out in the Huntington Beach Union High School District (HBUHSD), the final holdout in providing the public information sought by Register editors.
The HBUHSD is working with the paper and the Orange County Department of
Education "to determine the relevance of all of the requested data, including specific work locations," Deborah M. Coleman, the district's assistant superintendent in charge of human resources, wrote in a letter dated Oct. 19 and sent to all employees.
"Although we continue to work with the Orange County Register and dispute the need and newsworthy nature of the specific data being requested, we feel it is important to notify each of you of the possibility that this will be released and become part of an upcoming newspaper article. To date, it has been determined that the requested information is within the rights of the Register and our District must relinquish this data."
She attached a letter written on Register letterhead and dated Oct. 6.
"I am a news journalist and I write to request an electronic copy of records maintained by your school district," reads the letter from Register education editor William Diepenbrock to the district's records supervisor. "This request is filed under the provisions of California Public Records Law."
It went on to state the Santa Ana-based daily was 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 Register further requested such information of every district employee making more than $100,000 a year. If no teacher is identified earning that much, the district is to single out its highest paid teacher, with the salary and all other personal data.
This information will be used "in an upcoming news story about salaries paid in
Orange County's public school system from 2004-05 through 2009-10," Diepenbrock notes in the letter. "The Register has obtained total salaries for all public schools for 2004-05, 2008-09 and 2009-10 from the county Department of Education."
He writes it is 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 with their information being published is directed to provide him documentation. "We will consider their exclusion from our coverage," Diepenbrock states.
In light of Diepenbrock's letter, Coleman discloses 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 she advises employees to contact Diepenbrock if they have a problem with any of this, including his phone number each time.
Asked to enlighten Weekly readers about the Register's use of the information, Diepenbrock wrote in an e-mail to me, "This effort has fallen under the aegis of several ongoing projects."
One is the California Project, "which examines why the state struggles on so many fronts. School funding, and spending, is one of those," he writes. "Second, we're publishing a series of databases on government salaries. This would be third or fourth in the current series (we've done this in the past, too). This is sort of basic accountability that's become more prominent since the Bell scandal."
Indeed, the Register's recent database that identified County of Orange employees and their salaries sparked an uproar. However, as these are public employees, that information cannot legally be kept secret.
Diepenbrock stated his education team, which "focuses on different elements of school quality--from our annual rankings to our funding/spending/budget cuts and layoff tracking to this project," will rely on the data. "Salaries, of course, are the biggest element of school spending," he writes.
No firm publication date had been decided on when Diepenbrock responded to the Weekly, but he suspects "a smaller, focused . . . story on specific elements" will be out in November, followed by the full database.
"As you might guess, we 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," he notes.
Among those concerned are teachers and the state union that represents many of them. Instructors have been contacting their local, regional and state union reps expressing alarm, said Bill Guy, the communications consultant with the California Teachers Association Region IV, which is based in San Diego but includes Orange County.
"Obviously, they are concerned," Guy tells the Weekly.
He reached out to Register reporter Scott Martindale, who Guy had spoken with concerning last spring's Capistrano Unified School District strike. Martindale directed Guy to Diepenbrock, who had yet to connect with the union rep as of our conversation.
Guy wants to reiterate to the education editor that some teachers 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 says, "but we don't think that means we should put someone's life in danger like that."
But the CTA's larger concern centers on the way salary information is used, especially if it is married with test scores. There are several factors to take into consideration before reading too much into both, Guy warns.
He pointed to national studies that indicate looking at test scores taken by one set students at one given time or two completely different sets of students at two different times are not accurate reflections of a teacher's performance.
The CTA favors a "value-added" approach that tracks teacher performance over several years, but Guy notes even that can be inaccurate if factors like student mobility and the education and resources of a 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 rubric to rate 6,000 unionized teachers in LA. A few days after publication, one of those teachers committed suicide.
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Applying "scarlet letters" to teachers does not help improve education, says Guy, adding that this political season, as with many past, instructors already feel like piñatas. "It's like that old saying," he says, "'We're going to keep beating you until morale improves.'"
That said, Guy concedes the CTA can "understand" a comparison of salaries and scores when it comes to administrative pay, especially in light of the Bell scandal. At a time when scores of teachers are getting pink slips, many superintendents are taking home fortunes, he notes.
When it comes to the fears teachers have about the Register project, the CTA is considering the source. The Freedom Communications flagship has had a bad reputation among educators ever since its libertarian founders dictated that reporters must refer to "public schools" as "taxpayer-supported schools."
"We do feel they have a history of bias against public education," Guy says, "so that causes concern."