Civil grand juries are a wild card in the mix of local government. Funded by the court system, the 19-member volunteer juries can subpoena documents but lack any enforcement power. Their only clout comes from holding up alleged misdeeds to public scrutiny.
That was obviously the intent in the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury's recent broadside attack on the high salaries and benefits received by the county's top school officials. The jury took its cue from the current budget crisis, which has left school districts scrambling to cut costs and avoid laying off teachers.
The somewhat predictable and simplistic report, provocatively titled "Who Really Benefits from Education Dollars? (Hint: It's Not the Students)," declared that given the current budget climate, school districts should reduce the salaries and benefits of their top administrators. Among its many targets, the report singled out the superintendents serving Mountain View's schools: Barry Groves of the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, whose total compensation was $216,330 last year, and Maurice Ghysels of the Mountain View Whisman School District, who took home nearly $190,000 last year.
The report offered data for all school districts in the county, which showed that salaries for both Groves and Ghysels were in the pay range of similar-sized districts. For example, the Moreland Elementary School District, with 3,873 pupils, paid its superintendent $210,000, compared to Grove's $216,330 for overseeing 3,617 students.
But the Grand Jury missed some details, too. For example, it did not account for Groves managing the 12,000-student Adult School, a task that justifies some additional compensation.
Perhaps the most ridiculous deduction in the report was the effort to rank superintendents based on their total cost per student. No other comparable criteria were used. In the MV Whisman and MVLA districts, the cost-per-student ratios were $44 and $59, respectively. This compares positively -- but meaninglessly -- to, say, the $195-per-student earnings by the superintendent of an 802-pupil district in the South Bay.
There is no doubt that salaries for top school officials have crept upward -- as have those for top administrators in all areas of government. City managers routinely earn more than $200,000 a year, an amount usually based on the size of a city's population and workforce. As with city management, in the competitive world of school districts there is the challenge of keeping good superintendents on board, lest they move on to a larger district with higher pay.
The revelations contained in the report did grab some headlines, but we doubt they will make much of a difference the next time a school board sits down to determine a superintendent's pay. At that point, the board will want to hire the most competent administrator for the job, and won't worry about paying slightly more to get them. That's especially true in Santa Clara County, where every job seeker is keeping one eye on the area's high housing costs.
In a down economy, it is easy for a grand jury, or anyone else, to sound off about the high salaries being paid to government workers. But few of these attacks acknowledge that there is a free market out there for a limited number of top-notch candidates. We don't believe any school board is eager to overpay a candidate, but we also doubt they would risk losing the best candidate over a few thousand dollars.
Still, the report made a fine populist rallying cry for the many local residents, frustrated by these hard times, who seek a target for their outrage. Those residents should keep in mind that, unlike good school administrators, grand jury reports are a dime a dozen.