How much do school district employees really make?
Updated: Mar 27, 2022
Budget Season for our schools often tends to coincide with labor group contract renegotiations.
The public school fiscal year is aligned with the school year, which runs from July 1st through June 30th of the following year. State law requires that school districts outline their budget proposals in public meetings and have them approved by their Board. That process usually begins in April or May. Coincident with this is often the renegotiation of contracts with labor groups. Given 80 to 90% of most school district budgets are labor cost, any change in those contracts can have a huge impact on the budget. And since the impact is compounded over time (raises are given as a percentage, so an increase now leads to higher dollar increases in the future), that can have more impact on future budgets than it does on the immediate next year.
San Diego Schools feels one of the most important things a parent can do is to pay attention to how the district is spending money. Funds available for programs and services can greatly affect the quality of education for our kids, but the question is not just “how much money are we getting” but “how is that being spent.” As any family knows, if you have little control over your income, the only thing you can do to allocate more money to something that is important to you is to cut spending from something else.
Remember, that money comes from you, and you should be interested in (and paying attention to) how it is spent. On the education of your kids. Transparency, Accountability, Equity.
If you’re interested in how our schools are funding, you can “study up” with San Diego Schools “A Parent’s Guide to California School Funding” but the point of this post is not to go into those details.
Given revenue is fixed by the state, small changes in labor cost can move a district from having money available to fund the things parents want – smaller class sizes, better instructional materials, more support for low-income or kids with special needs, programs for gifted and talented kids, etc – to being unable to afford such things. In many cases (most) increases in labor cost drive a need to actually cut from the education of our kids.
Parents deserve to know all the details that go into making decisions that increase those costs. Sorry, but there are a lot of details. And to have a truly informed idea of the issues, you need to be familiar with those details. For a closer look you can review the “School Board Member Guide to Contract Negotiations”.
We hear much about the pay levels of our school staff, often in terms that lead one to believe that working in education is a low paid "labor of love" that one only does with great personal sacrifice. We hear how those pay levels lead to difficulty in attracting good employees (particularly teachers) and how failure to "improve" that leads good employees to leave for other, better paying opportunities. For parents – who are faced with decisions on whether to support their District and approve higher pay for themselves - reducing funds for programs and services for their kids – isn’t it critical to know the facts behind this? What are those real facts? Transparent California is a website that makes thousands of legal public record requests annually to collect millions of pay records, directly from the agencies own payroll records, from all public agencies in California, including school districts. [And, as disclosure, your author is the Research Director for this organization… just so you know.]
The data is easily downloadable and can be used to examine the true pay rates in your district. If you want to keep up with any new data you can “subscribe” to your district and will be emailed a notice when data is posted in the future .
An Excel template for this analysis is available here. Instructions can be found in the Template Notes tab, but as a summary, the process is not at all difficult for anyone who has a basic understanding of Microsoft Excel. To use the template, first download the data set you are interested in from Transparent California
Next, copy that data set (only the data, not the headers) and "paste as values" into the gray area in the Compensation tab.
Then we need to set the minimum values that determine which employees are “full time”. Entering the minimum hourly wage for the year you’re examining in the Template Notes tab sets this value for non-certificated employees. If someone made less than minimum wage that year, they could not possibly have worked full time.
For certificated employees, we use the minimum salary schedule rate for that year. This is obtained from the California Department of Education’s data, but can be overridden in the template if you have a copy of the appropriate salary schedule for that year. Obviously if a certificated employee makes less than the minimum salary for that year, they also could not have worked full time.
Lastly, we need to separate out the employees by labor group. This is not an exact science because the pay data provided does not indicate this, however after examining 28 million records in the Transparent California database we have developed a cross reference list to match job titles to labor group. This is contained in the template.
There may certainly be errors in that matching. The template allows you to change the classification if it is appropriate for your district, however in most districts having a few employees misclassified will not affect the final calculations by more than a few dollars. With this, you can produce a table that gives you some key bits of information. Here’s an example:
Key in this are the columns for median and average pay as well as total pay and benefits. In this example, in 2019 in Oceanside Unified the median total pay and benefits (“total compensation”) for a full time administrator was $157,630, with an average of $155,428. For a full time certificated employee the median is $120,050, average $115,754, and for a full time classified employee median is $61,340, average $64,753.
Both median and average are given because they can then be compared to other data given either way, but in general the median rate is a far more accurate reflection of actual compensation levels in the district. Why? Let’s look at that….
Let’s say in one year we have 10 employees, 9 of whom make $50,000/year and one who makes $500,000.
The average of this would be (9 * $50,000 = $450,000) + (1*$500,000 = $500,000) = $950,000. $950,000/10 = $95,000
The average of that would be $95,000/year. The median, however, would be $50,000. Which do you think is a more accurate representation of what a real employee in this district makes? A headline of “Average school district employee makes $95,000/year” would be totally misleading, would it not?
This is one flaw with the California Department of Education’s data, which is not only misleading because it uses average, but further misleading because they calculate that average by looking at the salary schedule, not the actual pay. We have confirmed with the CDE that their average is created by simply looking at the salary schedule and the number of employees in each step and column – which tells nothing about the total pay including any additional compensation, overtime, car allowances, stipends, etc. It is also completely misleading to use those averages to determine trends – whether pay is going up or down. Why? Because the mix of employees changes all the time, and having more senior employees leave and more junior take their place can affect the overall average in ways that do not actually reflect the real rates of change.
For example, let’s say in one year we have 100 employees, all making exactly $100,000/year. The total payroll for that year would then be $10,000,000, and the average would be $100,000/year.
The next year, 50 of those retire and are replaced with employees making a starting rate of $50,000/year. The remaining 50 are all given 10% raises and are now making $110,000/year.
The total payroll is now (50 * $50,000 = $2,500,000) + (50 * $110,000 = $5,500,000) = $8,000,000. That means the average is now $8,000,000/100 = $80,000.
If we are looking at averages, it appears the district has CUT people’s pay – they have gone from an average pay of $100,000/year to $80,000/year.
In reality existing employees received what most would consider a very generous raise – 10%, while the new hires have gone from making nothing (presumably they just graduated from college) to making something – an infinite raise. NO one was cut, even though a comparison of averages would imply that.
To get an actual pay increase rate one needs to look at longitudinal data for a specific cohort. In other words, track the final total compensation for specific employees over time and develop an average and median for that group.
It is possible to calculate a longitudinal pay increase number using Transparent California data. I’ve done that for some districts. Samples of that for Oceanside Unified, Sweetwater Union High, and San Marcos Unified are available. I have done others but the results have not been put into summary form like this. If anyone out there has mid-level Excel skills and would like to further examine not just the current compensation levels but also change over time for their district, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I would be happy to help.
Given the financial constraints of education, it is vitally important that decisions made that increase costs are made with full information available. Nothing is more important when considering an increase for employees than to know what those employees actually make now. The standard step-and-column salary schedule includes periodic increases, often those increases average 3 to 3.5% per year, which is about 1.5 times inflation. Contract negotiation raises are “above and beyond” those increases, they’re not “the only raise given” but in addition to the normal raises. With that, if a district needs to increase pay rates to attract and retain qualified people, that may be the right thing to do, even if it does result in a need to cut from our kids. That decision is up to the Board and the parents who provide their feedback. The key, however, is to make that determination based on facts, not on speculation or misleading data. Again, if your district is considering approval of a set of “extra raises” for labor groups and you would like help in determining the data behind that, email us at email@example.com and we’ll help whereever we can!
For reference here are some links to useful material. Compensation analysis template – https://drive.google.com/file/d/1W1e0VSTjQO6Z-hSHNuM5emKaVfaGJfDx/view?usp=sharing
Transparent California – http://transparentcalifornia.com
California Department of Education Pay data - https://www.cde.ca.gov/ds/fd/cs/
California Minimum Wage Rates - https://www.dir.ca.gov/iwc/MinimumWageHistory.htm
A Parent’s Guide to California School Funding - https://www.sandiegoschools.net/post/schoolfunding
School Board Member Guide to Contract Negotiations - https://www.sandiegoschools.net/post/boardmembernegotiationguide
Transparency in K-12 School District Disclosures - http://toddmaddison.com/education/k12transparency
LA School Report “Want to know where your education dollars go? Take a look at labor costs — it’s nearly all salary and benefits” (5/29/19) - http://laschoolreport.com/antonucci-want-to-know-where-your-education-dollars-go-take-a-look-at-labor-costs-its-nearly-all-salary-and-benefits/
Voice of San Diego “Districts Couldn’t Stop Raising Employee Pay – Now Kids Will Pay the Price” (4/8/20) - https://www.voiceofsandiego.org/topics/opinion/districts-couldnt-stop-raising-employee-pay-now-kids-will-pay-the-price/
San Diego Union Tribune “Nearly every San Diego County school district may be spending more than it can afford” (2/9/20) - https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/education/story/2020-02-09/nearly-every-san-diego-county-school-district-is-spending-more-than-they-have-or-they-will-be