Your Schools

Why we ask – and publish – what Charlotte-area educators earn

Every spring at budget time, the Observer updates salary listings for public bodies – including public schools.

And every year some wonder why we’d be so mean to educators who are already under pressure.

The lists are popular, and most people agree that salaries of top public officials should be known to all. But some contend there’s no value in revealing pay for rank-and-file employees.

I understand the concern. But after working with public salary lists for several years, I’ve seen real-life examples of why disclosure is important.

Linking pay with names gives everyone a chance to see if public officials and other influential people are giving public jobs to relatives or pals. Some cases can be high profile, such as former Gov. Mike Easley helping his wife land a $170,000-a-year job with N.C. State University several years ago.

Some involve little-known figures. The administrator of a now-closed Charlotte charter school not only had immediate family members on the payroll but had awarded herself a raise that board officers said they weren’t aware of.

The lists can also help debunk rumors, such as the notion that a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent was giving his wife a six-figure salary (she volunteered with a CMS program) or that some charter school administrators get lavish paychecks (this year’s highest is $125,000, less than that of many CMS principals).

Phantom employees?

I’ve heard some administrators argue that they should be required to disclose names and pay only under specific circumstances – for instance, for employees who are related to elected officials or charter board members. But that eliminates the possibility of someone spotting something that just doesn’t look right.

Case in point: Year after year, we published a salary for a Providence High teacher whose colleagues hadn’t seen him in years. Even when the recession forced layoffs, this unseen teacher kept popping up, with a salary reflecting annual raises. Someone finally brought it to the Observer’s attention, and after repeated queries, we determined that this teacher had spent the past decade on worker’s compensation. He wasn’t actually drawing a paycheck or taking a position that could have been filled by a working teacher.

In other words, it was more a quirk of CMS reporting than a scandal. But it’s precisely the kind of thing that should draw scrutiny.

The charter school twist

As charter school advocates are eager to note, charter schools are public schools. They’re run by independent boards but funded by state and local taxpayers – and subject to the same Public Records Law that requires disclosure of CMS salaries.

When I first requested salaries from Charlotte-area charter schools in 2014, I learned that several prominent advocates weren’t keen on that part of being public. My request kicked off a weeks-long scrum that involved state education officials, charter groups, lawyers and legislators. Eventually I got the salaries, and the General Assembly passed explicit rules for charter school salary disclosure.

That didn’t stop some new schools from resisting this year.

“We determined to take the names of staff members out since your study does not require that information,” replied an administrator for Queen City STEM.

“The board voted on providing a salary range for staffed positions,” wrote the head of A.C.E. Academy.

I eventually persuaded all the balky schools that complying with state law isn’t optional. There are now 33 charter schools serving a significant number of Mecklenburg students, and we have payroll data for all of them.

The gist of the “charter schools are special” argument hangs on the fact that they aren’t tied to the state’s teacher pay scale, which sets salaries based on experience and credentials. Because charter schools have payroll flexibility, several administrators have argued, it’s distracting and demoralizing for teachers to learn what their colleagues are making.

I’m not convinced. For one thing, it turns out that many area charter schools have adopted pay scales similar to what CMS uses – even as CMS moves toward more creative ways to reward its top performers.

For another, this smacks of employers protecting themselves from uncomfortable employee questions – understandable, but hardly cause for a legal exemption. If a charter school creates an innovative way to stretch the available public dollars to recruit, motivate and reward top faculty, that system should make sense to insiders and provide lessons for outsiders.

Real people matter

I’ll report more soon on trends and issues raised by the latest pay information.

Until then, I’ll add one more point in favor of individual disclosure: Voters and taxpayers care more about the real people who teach their children than about educators in the abstract.

I’ll never forget when CMS announced that recession-driven cuts would force hundreds of teacher layoffs. I expected a mob scene at the school board’s budget hearing. Instead, crickets.

A week or two later the layoff notices went out. Only after parents heard that their child’s favorite teacher was losing a job did the outrage erupt. The lesson: One person you know matters more than hundreds you don’t.

Now the General Assembly is debating raises for teachers and other school employees. Look up the educators you know and you’ll understand how these decisions play out in real lives.

Maybe teachers are warming to that point of view. Going into this year’s legislative session, Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, R-Wake, talked about introducing a bill that would block disclosure of individual teachers’ pay.

I asked him about that this week. He said he dropped it.

“I thought teachers would appreciate it,” he said, “but I did not receive any support from teacher organizations.”

Highest paid educators

From 2016 compensation data provided by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and 33 area charter schools. The Observer requested current base pay plus any additional compensation, such as bonuses and stipends.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Superintendent Ann Clark: $262,000

General Counsel George Battle III: $190,000

Chief Financial Officer Sheila Shirley: $180,500

Chief Operations Officer Carol Stamper: $170,000

South Mecklenburg High School Principal Maureen Furr: $165,582

Charter schools

Cheryl Turner, principal of Sugar Creek Charter School: $125,000

Thomas Hanley, executive principal of Stewart Creek High: $120,000

Tiffany Flowers, executive director of KIPP Charlotte: $118,976

Justin Matthews, executive director of Mountain Island Charter School: $118,915

Christopher Terrill, head of schools, Pine Lake Prep: $118,821

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