The Public Eye

Public Eye: Yolo superintendent’s pay hike draws scrutiny

Yolo County’s Board of Education yielded to public pressure last week and voted not to raise the pay of Superintendent Jorge Ayala, who is set to leave office in December.

The pay increase has been contentious since it was first proposed in April by a committee of two board members.

The first recommendation was a raise of $12,657 to bring the superintendent’s yearly salary to $178,433. Two separate revisions failed to quell community opposition, and board members voted unanimously Wednesday not to move forward with the pay hike. Board member Jesse Ortiz, a candidate for the county superintendent’s seat in Tuesday’s election, abstained from the vote.

“There was considerable resistance to a compensation increase at this time,” said trustee Bill Owens, a member of the compensation committee. “It doesn’t have anything to do with a lack of regard or confidence in Dr. Ayala. He is held in high regard by me, the board, the education community and the broader community.”

The compensation committee, which also included trustee Xavier Gamez, responded to community concerns by making a second recommendation offering a smaller salary increase in May. It would have given Ayala a pay increase in sync with the raises recently negotiated with district employees – a 1 percent raise for 2012-13 and a 3 percent raise for 2013-14, both retroactive, as well as a 2 percent bonus. The raise would have brought Ayala’s salary to $172,407 and would given him a bonus of $3,316.

County residents expressed concern about a salary hike so close to Ayala’s departure from the district, Owens said. The highest year of pay determines the size of an employee’s annual pension when they retire with 25 years of service or more. Districts have been under scrutiny in recent years for giving last-minute pay bumps to administrators on their way out. The practice, known as pension spiking, has led to audits.

Owens defended the timing of Ayala’s proposed raise, saying it could not be considered until after employee negotiations were completed in March.

The committee submitted an addendum to the recommendation before Wednesday’s meeting. It would have converted the raise of 4 percent over two years to an off-schedule payment that would not have increased Ayala’s pension.

“Our recommendation to do that wasn’t because we were concerned about pension spiking per se,” Owens said. “If you have a compensation increase toward the end of a career that is out of line or disproportionate, that raises a concern about the appropriateness. That was never the situation here. We felt the proposed compensation increase was in line with past policies.”

The recommendation on Wednesday’s agenda, if passed, would not have violated state law, according to Gary Winuk, chief of enforcement for the Fair Political Practices Commission.

Veterinarian Bert Brooks urged Ayala on Wednesday to decline the pay increase, despite its reduction. “While it has been customary for Dr. Ayala and other dedicated and hardworking public employees to receive small but incremental cost-of-living allowances over the years, the private sector has not been so fortunate,” he said in a statement to the board.

Most of the 30 to 40 community members who attended Wednesday’s meeting left after the pay raise was voted down, Owens said. The sentiment expressed by residents at the meeting was echoed in the community, he said. “There was considerable concern throughout the community that the compensation increase was not appropriate,” Owens said.

The committee considered the salaries, benefits and stipends of superintendents of other districts before making a recommendation. Its research showed that Ayala, who last had a raise in 2010-11, made about $21,000 less in pay and benefits than the average Yolo County superintendent and about $3,737 less than other schools chiefs in similar-sized county offices of education.

The whole process will start again next month when the board begins the process of setting the salary for the next superintendent.

Owens says the public discussion surrounding the proposed pay hike has been healthy. “Quite frankly I’ve found it very invigorating and encouraging to have this level of public engagement in this matter,” he said. “I’d like to build on that level of engagement to leverage some value for the betterment of education in Yolo County.”

Ayala, who could not be reached for comment Friday, has served as the Yolo County schools chief since 1998.