How do you put a value on education? Or rather, on those who educate?
In Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, education pay ranges from just over $30,000 a year for some beginning teachers to more than $175,000 for the highest-paid administrators.
Each of the two counties had 14 school district employees who made more than $100,000 annually. Average elementary school salaries in both were just over $60,000, with high school teachers making several thousand more.
Salaries here, say local educators, are in line with others in the field.
Egregious salaries made by California city officials and by publicly funded education advocates made the news in 2010, and counties across the state are examining officials’ paychecks.
And the ongoing recession, with its cuts to education funding, ended programs and jobs and brought renewed attention to school salaries.
Local government pay came under scrutiny in 2010, when an investigation disclosed that some officials in the Southern California city of Bell (population 38,000) were paid close to $1 million a year.
In July, the California School Boards Association executive director resigned following reports of a salary increase from $352,000 to $540,000 in one year and that he had used a CSBA credit card to get $11,000 in cash at Sacramento area casinos.
“Because the economy’s gone to hell in a hand basket, everyone’s pointing fingers at public employees,” said former Calaveras County Superintendent of Schools John Brophy.
There are no salaries among local school district employees that are even close to those once paid by the City of Bell. And, say local education officials, they are in line with industry standards.
About 1,000 education employees’ payroll checks are processed by the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office each month, said Danna Fritz, human resources director.
Fourteen gross annual salaries were more than $100,000 in 2009, according to W-2 tax forms. Wages of those top-earners salaries totaled $1,791,759.
Calaveras County Office of Education processes 1,575 W-2 forms each year for county education employees, according to Claudia Davis, assistant superintendent of business services.
In Calaveras County, $1,674,567.60 went to 14 education officials, according to W-2s.
Top earners in 2009 for both counties include since-retired Vallecito Union School District superintendent Glenn Sewell, who grossed $179,291; John Keiter, superintendent of Summerville Union High School and Twain-Harte Long Barn Union School districts, who earned $175,297, and John Pendley, Columbia and Belleview school district superintendent, at $166,638.
Joe Silva, Tuolumne County superintendent of schools, is paid the average of the four highest district superintendents’ salaries, and in 2009 made $152,110.
Mariposa County Unified School District, with 2,173 students, paid its superintendent $107,893
Of Tuolumne County’s higher paid school officials, four work for more than one district.
Chief Business Official Tonya Midget, with 14 years education experience, grossed $141,617. In 2009, she split her time between Summerville High, Twain Harte-Long Barn, Curtis Creek and Big Oak Flat-Groveland.
The Bret Harte district has two assistant principals, one at Bret Harte High and another for its alternative high school, who grossed over $100,000.
It’s common in high schools for assistant principals and principals to split responsibilities, some covering separate grades and discipline, and others curriculum and senior counseling, explained Mike Chimente, Bret Harte district superintendent.
Bret Harte Agriculture teacher Roy Beck grossed $107,925 in 2009. He has taught for 35 years, has had his master’s degree for 34 years, and has 100 additional college units.
Beck says he typically works from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday. On most weekends and holidays, he drives FFA judging teams to competitions around the state; organizes students at the Calaveras County Fair and much more.
“Those are things people don’t really understand,” Beck said.
Leigh Ann Blessing, assistant Tuolumne County superintendent for business services, says that as a salaried employee she doesn’t keep track of her long hours.
“If you calculate wages for the hours actually worked, it’s not as impressive as the annual salaries,” Blessing said.
“My salary comes from public funds. I need to be a really good steward,” said Tuolumne County’s Danna Fritz.
Salaries are determined by individual school districts and governing boards who negotiated pay schedules with employee bargaining unions. Before the financial crisis, state funding including cost-of-living increases and, when coupled with growing enrollment, school employees had “nice raises,” Fritz said.
Districts “try to be competitive” with salaries, she added, “while still living within their means.”
Local salaries are compared to those of other districts with similar demographics, Fritz said.
Superintendent salaries are negotiated between the candidate hired and the school board, with financial information from the chief financial officer.
Since the recession, various county school employees are taking furlough days, pay cuts and job reductions, even at the executive level.
Keiter, who has a doctorate degree in education, said in 2010-11 he took a six-day pay reduction, after a five-day pay reduction the prior year.
He, too, doesn’t keep track of his 10- to 16-hour days.
Reduced support staff over the prior two years created more work for administrators.
“It’s the same amount of balls in air with fewer hands. It’s not something we can just keep doing,” Keiter said.
“These jobs are with you 24/7,” Fritz added.
“I love my job … I am proud of the job I do on a daily basis,” said Bret Harte’s Chimente. “I started 35 years ago, making $10,000 a year, much less than what I could’ve gotten in the private sector. It was a way to make a positive difference in kids’ lives.”
Rural superintendents often wear many hats, like Chimente, who absorbed a facilities director position and also develops curriculum development and manages bond projects.
Sonora Elementary School Trustee Casey Littleton feels his district’s salaries “are where they should be,” and “if anything, we pay less than equivalent districts.”
Littleton did point out that, in more populated areas, “superintendents manage five to seven schools, unlike ours.”
“I don’t believe we need nine superintendents in this county but that’s a whole other conversation,” he said.
“You’re not going to be able to hire a competent executive-level professional educator without a competitive salary,” said Joe Von Hermann, Tuolumne County Board of Education president. “Considering the job they do and the skill set it takes, they are reasonably paid. It’s a difficult thing, especially in a county like this without a lot of professional executive level jobs.”
“Someone has to speak up for the employees,” said Calaveras County’s Brophy. “I’m one of those people. I’m not ashamed of it. I’ve been in the field 38 years, I have advanced degrees and I do a good job.
“Being a public employee is hard enough. If public employees become whipping boys for what went wrong on Wall Street, why would anyone go into it?”
According to the California Department of Education, in 2008-09, the most recent available data, the average elementary school teacher in Tuolumne County was paid $60,013.
On average, Tuolumne County high school teachers were paid $68,158. The lowest starting teacher’s salary offered was $36,686, the CDE said.
In Calaveras County, in 2008-09, the average elementary school teacher was paid $61,512, the average high school teacher was paid $73,178; and the lowest starting salary offered was $31,762.
Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, of Los Angeles, said he has no problem with teachers and educators.
“You have to look at it in relation to what we can afford to pay them,” Vosburgh said, citing high unemployment rates and record foreclosures.
“This is not the time public employees should be looking for raises when most people are having to work harder and longer,” Vosburgh said. “The fact of the matter is we think any government entity increasing salaries in the midst of a recession is doing a disservice to taxpayers.”
However, he admits, it is hard to pick out a figure and say “this administrator is only worth that much.”