Most school districts withhold salary data from California state controller

Second-grade teacher Katee Taylor hands out books to her students in the library at Marion Mix Elementary School on Thursday, August 13, 2015 in Elk Grove.
Second-grade teacher Katee Taylor hands out books to her students in the library at Marion Mix Elementary School on Thursday, August 13, 2015 in Elk Grove.

When the State Controller’s Office asked school districts to hand over salary data, about 70 percent of the public school systems across the state – and a slightly higher share in Sacramento County – did not provide the requested information.

The Controller’s Office began mandating data from cities, counties and other local agencies about five years ago in response to a scandal in the Southern California city of Bell that netted a prison term for a former city manager. Though other salary requests from the controller are voluntary in nature, including those for K-12 school districts, many agencies provide information because the database is respected as a clearinghouse for government transparency.

John Hill, spokesman for the Controller’s Office, said the information is useful to have in one place where consumers can analyze pay data.

He said his office “recognizes that school districts have a lot of other duties and can be stretched thin. That said, we ask for the information because we think it’s of value to the public. And the more complete the data, the more useful it is.”

But some local education agencies said that the reporting process is time-consuming and that the information is already available to the public from individual districts. They see little need for the Controller’s Office to collect all the data.

“The controller doesn’t have any obligation to keep salaries,” said David Gordon, superintendent for the Sacramento County Office of Education. “They just decided they wanted to do that.”

If the state wanted a salary database of every government body, an agency could be designated to collect it, he said. But, he added, why establish a requirement when “we’re willing to share. We’re very transparent. Whenever people ask us for data, we’re quick in providing it.”

Further, he said, the 2014 data, released in October 2015, are outdated as soon as it appears. If the data are not timely and extemporaneous, Gordon said, “by its very nature it’s misleading.”

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At Twin Rivers Unified, Deputy Superintendent Bill McGuire said meeting the state’s requests means “an enormous amount of work” for district staff and can misrepresent the bottom line for salaries because of the manner in which the state asks for certain wage reporting. “We believe it is not reflective of the wages,” he said. “We’re not going to take public funds to spend on this additional work,” he said.

Hill said his office works with districts in an effort to be flexible on some portions of the data collection. But, he said, the basic information on categories, department classification and total regular pay “are things that all of the districts know.”

Sacramento County districts that responded provided a trove of public data. The area’s largest K-12 district, Elk Grove Unified, tops the region in overall spending with a $332 million payroll. Out of 9,118 employees, 172 were paid at least $100,000 in 2014.

Want to know the highest 2014 wages for a teacher in the Folsom Cordova Unified School District? The website shows that, too: nearly $114,000, including $80,600 in base pay and $33,200 in unspecific “other pay.”

St. Hope Public Schools also did not file data with the State Controller’s Office. Jim Scheible, a spokesman for the Sacramento nonprofit charter system, said the schools fully comply with all mandated forms of reporting, most of which are public. “It is our opinion that the reports we currently complete provide the information required for financial reporting and sufficient transparency,” Scheible wrote in an email.

One of those forms, Form 990 that tax-exempt groups file annually with the IRS, provides salary information for the organization’s top administrators and chief officials, he said.

The more information included in the database, the more useful it is to those who want to get a complete picture of government compensation in California.

State Controller’s Office spokesman John Hill

Cities, counties and special districts by law have been reporting salaries to the state controller since 2010. That year, the Los Angeles Times reported that the former chief for the city of Bell had awarded himself a nearly $800,000 yearly salary plus benefits. City Manager Robert Rizzo in 2014 was sentenced to 12 years in prison in a political corruption scandal authorities said involved multiple city leaders and looting of $5.5 million in city funds.

Three years ago, the Controller’s Office added to the database, asking community colleges to submit voluntary payroll information, Hill said. More recently, the controller sought voluntary information from a host of public agencies, including Superior Courts, fairs and expositions, the University of California system and K-12 school districts.

Two of the largest Sacramento County districts, Sacramento City Unified and San Juan Unified, filed information but do not appear in the database because the data were not in the format required by the Controller’s Office.

“The response was that the format wasn’t acceptable,” said Sacramento City Unified spokesman Gabe Ross. To fix that format would have required “an extraordinary amount of staff time.”

“Our intent was to share the information,” he said. “We had hoped our information would have been included.”

The real bottom line: The controller doesn’t have any obligation to keep salaries. They just decided they wanted to do that.

David Gordon, superintendent for the Sacramento County Office of Education

San Juan Unified School District spokesman Trent Allen said his district also “worked diligently” to provide the data but also had difficulty providing it in the requested format.

“Given our limited resources,” Allen said in an email, “we have chosen to not invest the financial and time resources that would be needed to manually prepare the data.” When possible, he added, staff members are continuing work on establishing an automated system for meeting the state’s request as soon as the information is available.

Editor’s note (Nov. 1): This story has been corrected to state that nearly $114,000 was the highest amount of total wages for a Folsom Cordova Unified teacher in 2014. A previous version said that amount was base pay.