Almost 900 teachers, principals and other school staff, most working at Charlotte's most challenging schools, collected more than $2.7 million in bonuses during the past year, even as top administrators forfeited theirs.
New payroll data provides a snapshot of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' worst budget year in recent memory. The district's work force shrank by more than 900 people since last spring, while the number of six-figure salaries held steady.
Across-the-board raises disappeared, but CMS spent almost $676,000 on market adjustments that gave raises to some principals and executive directors earning $100,000 or more, as well as low-wage workers who got 15-cent hourly bumps.
Compared with Mecklenburg County and the city of Charlotte, CMS has a small portion of its work force earning $100,000 or more. But as leaders look at cutting 1,000 more jobs in 2010-11, debate continues to rage over how the district spends its shrinking dollars.
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Scrutiny at the top
Each spring, the Observer publishes payroll information on local governments. With the recession slamming the Charlotte region, public interest is surging - and the highest salaries draw the most scrutiny.
Gorman recently e-mailed employees to say the payroll release is not only required by N.C. law but valuable to the public.
"Rumor, innuendo or misinformation about our district, its employees and what we earn is not desirable," he wrote. "Transparency is our best defense and also serves an important public function: the public's right to know how its tax money is spent."
With a budget of roughly $1 billion and a work force of 18,858, CMS is one of the region's largest employers. Its decisions about spending ripple through the economy.
Gorman, whose work force is larger than the city's and county's combined, remains the highest-paid employee of local government, at $302,150. His "chiefs" make less than top officials in city and county government. He declined a performance bonus this year, while County Manager Harry Jones got $38,400 and City Manager Curt Walton got $16,000 in November.
Gorman, Jones and Walton could all make more running similar-sized private businesses, says Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan.
"The sense in the business community is we're very fortunate to have someone the caliber of Peter Gorman as superintendent, and we need to make sure he has the resources he needs to attract the talent the district needs," Morgan said.
Reining in execs
When Gorman came to Charlotte in 2006, he added highly paid central-office administrators, saying the new jobs and bigger paychecks would pay off in a better-run district.
But since the economy crashed, he has eliminated some of those jobs and used turnover to reduce salaries for others.
Gorman says he's further cutting central-office staff by consolidating regional offices. Most changes take effect in July and don't show up on the current payroll.
Wake County Schools, which has almost 5,000 more students than CMS, currently has virtually the same number of administrators earning $100,000 or more: 103 in Wake, 104 in CMS. Wake, which had 112 at the six-figure level last spring, has also been eliminating jobs.
Gorman and CMS board Chair Eric Davis say they're glad that a growing number of successful principals are getting bigger paychecks. Before Gorman's arrival, 27 principals earned $100,000 or more. Currently 56 of 195 top that mark, and four more principals assigned to lead struggling schools earned bonuses that pushed them past $100,000.
"I want to pay our principals well. They run big, complex organizations" that require business, leadership and educational skills, Davis said.
Still, with hundreds of teachers facing layoffs, some have called for Gorman and his top aides to take pay cuts.
Gorman calls layoffs "a terrible option," but rejects pay cuts, saying everyone who remains is working just as hard as before, if not harder. The majority of the school board agrees.
Who got raises?
CMS's across-the-board raises disappeared this year, but some employees got raises as part of a plan launched in 2007 to match market rates.
The current budget includes $675,627 for those raises. CMS parents Austin and Liz Carrington of Charlotte asked about that in February. School board member Trent Merchant told them the raises were only going to low-wage workers such as bus drivers and custodians, "not central office staff."
When the Carringtons challenged him to press for details, Merchant learned that some hourly workers with good job evaluations got a 15-cent hourly raise, but some salaried professionals also got bumps.
Merchant said he was dismayed to realize that. "Why are we still giving increases when we are laying off people ourselves, and the 'market' has regressed?" he e-mailed CMS's chief finance officer.
The Observer has requested a report on all employees who received market adjustments; it was not ready as of Friday. However, CMS confirmed what the Observer found by comparing 2009 and 2010 payrolls: Principals, executive directors and other professionals, including six earning $100,000 or more, received raises.
Liz Carrington said Friday that if Gorman wanted to give raises, he should have been open about it: "It's the taxpayers' business to know when you're elevating those salaries."
Gorman's budget for 2010-11 eliminates all market-adjustment raises.
Who got bonuses?
While top administrators gave up their bonuses, some teachers, principals and other school staff collected rewards through special programs designed to attract top faculty to high-poverty, low-performing schools.
Mary Sturge, who became principal of Reid Park Elementary in 2008 as part of Gorman's strategic staffing plan, had the highest reported bonus, $11,486. An additional 47 people, most of them teachers, got $10,000, and 90 educators got between $5,000 and $10,000.
This year's bonuses totaled $2.7million. Gorman notes that even more teachers and principals in schools across the county would have gotten up to $7 million in state ABC bonuses for test-score gains if the state budget cuts had not eliminated those payments in 2009.
Eventually, Gorman wants all employees' pay to be based partly on how well they perform. But the ABC situation illustrates one of the main reasons teachers and others are wary: Performance bonuses are often viewed as extras that can be yanked when money gets tight.
"When a district had its best year and the bonuses don't come, that's pulling the rug out from under people," Gorman said.
He said he could be accused of doing the same to his top staff.
"That's a tough piece: What's the right amount of sacrifice?" he said. "During good times we should make more. During challenging times we end up making less."