May 27 01:24 AM

Transparency or politics?

Officials weigh in on state law to post salaries, benefits

September 08, 2010
TRI-CITY AREA — Legislators say a new transparency reporting law for Michigan schools mirrors a national trend toward open government.

Some school officials say making public information more public is a duplication of services that burden already cash- and staff-strapped districts.

When Lansing lawmakers approved the state's School Aid bill last year, they added a rider stipulating that all districts perform Budget/Salary Compensation Transparency Reporting.

Now all school Web sites sport a logo that directs visitors to a cache of financial information including annual operating budgets, summary of expenditures, collective bargaining agreements, health care plans, superintendent wages and all others that exceed $100,000 and more.

On top of likening it to an unfunded mandate, Dryden Superintendent Tom Goulette is of the opinion this 'reporting' is a tactic lawmakers took to divert some of the public's ire over education funding from themselves and onto local officials.

This logo can now be found on school district Web sites, letting anyone access financial information.
"I'm not embarrassed by it," he said of the reports that include detail on his wages and benefits.

"For what I do as a superintendent, curriculum director, human resources and maintenance head, I believe it's a fair wage. It's the reason for the (reporting) requirement that's political. There is no real reason for us to do it."

Pushing numbers in front of the public is a good way to suggest that school officials were being secretive or that money is being wasted or mismanaged at the local level.

"They can't balance their budgets so this is one way for them to try and get public sentiment in their favor," he said.

Imlay City School Board President Sharon Muir agrees that the motive behind transparency reporting is puzzling.

"School finance is a complex monster. I'm just wondering how understandable that kind of information is to the average person," Muir said.

"You can look at the balances of major funds but that doesn't tell you where the money comes from."

Although the intent was probably good, Muir said school districts don't need to be micromanaged.

"We've hit a point where legislators need to focus on the business of the legislature and let school districts focus on the business of education," she added.

If state leaders really want to improve the way education dollars are doled out and spent, they would be wise to align their fiscal year with the school year budget, Muir suggests.

"We never had accurate numbers with which to work," she said. School budgets must be approved by the first of August while the governor has until the end of October to sign the spending bill.

Phil Pavlov, 81st District State Representative and the ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, said the new transparency rules provides for the "supreme level of accountability."

Pavlov said taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent. The federal government posts their budget online and several states do the same. Residents can visit and see how much Pavlov and other representatives spend on mailing, printing and other costs each month. His Web site states that he earns $79,650 per year as an elected official.

"We've moved into the electronic age. It used to be that budgets were posted in newspapers but that's being relaxed to save taxpayer dollars," Pavlov said.

Although he has harsh criticism for the law, Goulette said Dryden Schools opted to compile and publish more salary information than what's required. In addition to the superintendent, Dryden also listed the salaries of the K-12 principal, average teacher and first year teacher, even though their gross pay doesn't exceed $100,000.

"If we're really going to be transparent we thought this would be a range the public would be interested in," Goulette said.

"It gives a bit of perspective. This shows it takes time to get to the top of the pay scale."

The K-12 principal base salary is $91,399; the average Dryden teacher earns $68,754 with some making up to $76,000. A first year teacher in the district starts at $36,111.

In St.Clair County, the Regional Educational Service Area (RESA) has posted the wages of all salaried employees in all school districts, including Capac.

In Imlay City, the superintendent and building principal salaries are listed since all surpass $100,000. In Almont, only the superintendent job wages are posted.

A perusal of other financial information shows that all Tri-City area districts shell out about $15,000 per teacher or administrator for health insurance coverage. Retirement costs for administrators range between $15,000-$22,000.

All four districts are alike in one report—none have doled out money for lobbying services.

To see the full reports, visit each district's Web site and click on the Budget/Salary Compensation Transparency Reporting logo.

Maria Brown joined the Tri-City Times staff in 2003, the same year she earned a bachelor's degree in English from Calvin College. Born and raised in Imlay City, she now resides north of Capac where she enjoys working on the farm, gardening and reading.
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