When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools hired former state legislator Charles Jeter in December 2016 to act as its government liaison, he made $91,000 a year.
When the Observer requested CMS salaries for 2018, Jeter's pay had risen to $140,000 a year, a $49,000 increase over the previous spring.
That change illustrates why the Observer has sought public salaries for the past 10 years: Taxpayers and voters deserve to know who's being paid what and why.
The "why" can be the tricky part.
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Budget hawks and CMS skeptics tend to scrutinize pay for top administrators, raising questions when they get big raises and noting how many teachers could be hired for that money. But shuffling of titles and duties can make direct comparisons tough.
Jeter, for instance, was hired as a legislative advocate working for General Counsel George Battle III. He says his initial $91,000 salary matched that of his predecessor in the job, a lawyer who went to work for the county.
Jeter says he later took on the duties of the CMS policy administrator, who was earning more than $120,000 a year before she retired last summer. So while his new salary is 54 percent higher than his old one, he notes that it's at least $70,000 less than the combined salaries of the two he replaced.
"I'm saving the district money," he said.
This year CMS provided pay listings for 19,339 employees earning a total of roughly $825 million in salaries, stipends and bonuses. The Observer's database reflects a financial snapshot taken each spring, as officials debate the coming year's budget.
Here are five questions often posed by taxpayers and interested citizens that the pay list can help answer.
1. What are teachers making?
CMS has eight teachers listed as making more than $90,000 a year — the top salary is just over $97,000 — and 50 making at least $80,000. That's largely because of a Success by Design program being studied as a state model that provides stipends of up to $23,000 a year for highly effective teachers who take on additional duties, such as coaching colleagues and/or teaching more students. ROTC instructors also cluster at the top of the list because they work 12-month schedules and get part of their salary from the military.
CMS teachers start at just over $40,000 a year, thanks to a county supplement that boosts the $35,000 state salary.
Based on the salaries provided, the average salary for full-time CMS teachers is about $51,056, rising to $52,122 when stipends and bonuses are included. That compares with a statewide average of $50,861, according to recent National Education Association estimates.
2. How about principals?
CMS has 171 principals listed at annual compensation that ranges from just over $69,000 to almost $190,000. Five top $150,000 and 81 top $100,000.
County money is also used to boost state pay for principals. Those in CMS run some of the state's largest schools.
3. Why are there so many nonteachers on the payroll?
This year's list includes 9,394 teachers, just under half the total payroll. That proportion has been steady for years and always prompts questions about why CMS has so many employees who don't teach kids.
While some assume that means administrative ranks are padded, the payroll includes huge numbers of cafeteria workers, bus drivers, teacher assistants, building and grounds staff and others who provide support for a district that educates roughly 150,000 students.
4. Is Clayton Wilcox inflating or streamlining administration?
This is the first payroll list, as well as the first budget plan, that reflects the leadership of Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who took office in July. But as always, it's tough to make direct comparisons from one superintendent's administrative structure to another's.
As the Observer reported last summer, Wilcox significantly boosted pay for several of his top lieutenants. But while some of the individual raises were striking, the total compensation for CMS' 20 highest-paid employees rose only about 5 percent from 2017 to 2018, not much more than the average raise for all staff.
Because he has changed job titles and reorganized departments, it's hard to see the overall impact on administrative staffing and spending. And the payroll catches Wilcox in midtransition, with many of his changes set to take effect in July.
5. What about the people at the bottom of the pay scale?
Wilcox recently cited $11.78 an hour as the minimum living wage for an adult with no kids who works full time to be able to support him- or herself. That comes to about $24,500 a year.
The list includes almost 2,500 full-time CMS employees earning less than that, most of them bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers and teacher assistants.