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EDITORIAL: Grand jury report on school salaries misses forest for the trees

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.

Comments

Posted by USA, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 22, 2009 at 4:49 pm

USA is a registered user.

I have to agree with you on this. As I mentioned in an earlier article on the subject -- the salary issue is an emotional one but is not a big issue in the overall budget. If a manager has a staff of 100 doing the job of ten, it really does not matter what the manager makes relative to the total labor costs.

Also, I noticed the language of report is not what one would expect of a dispassionate investigator but is that of an angry blogger. (You know the type -- hates his parents but lives in their garage because the world has not discovered his talents as musician/artist, so he writes a blog to share his important insights about the world.)


Posted by USA, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 22, 2009 at 5:01 pm

USA is a registered user.

Don Kawashima is the foreman on the grand jury. I Googled his name and read through several other grand jury reports about Alviso, VTA, the water district, etc. All of them are scathing attacks, full of bombastic comments.

It's good that someone is looking out for the taxpayer, but this is not helpful.


Posted by resident, a resident of North Whisman
on Jul 22, 2009 at 5:30 pm

It seems that the Voice once again is back paddling from a previous article on the chaos in our schools rather than standing behind it's original reporting. Why didn't the original coverage bring out these points? Why the "on second thought" now? First is was attack Ms. P, then make an attempt to spin a positive opinion from it last week. Now this.

The bottom line is that government spending is out of control.

"no doubt that salaries for top school officials have crept upward"---on average 10k a year since 2001 in MVWSD. That's a pretty hefty climb. And what about the 6K auto allowance? Is that really justified or do we just sit back and accept it?

"the challenge of keeping good superintendents on board, lest they move on to a larger district with higher pay" Ghysels has been on the job only three years in his first position as superintendent. Scores are flat, and he's yet to prove he's any good. Groves has been on the job for 17 years and manages much more. How do the two compare? They don't.

People really need to start looking at it from the bottom up. If you pay teachers the least possible, you will get the least qualified and motivated.


Posted by j, a resident of Monta Loma
on Jul 23, 2009 at 3:02 pm

Must agree with resident, Bottom line, spending is out of control. Rather then hiring new people, the government has to fork out pension money. Rather then buying school equipment, they need to fork out severence payments. And to top it off, the boards votes to raise everyones pay, including there own. IT's been long known to get a gov job that you are set for life. We need more people like Don Kawashima, to show us how fat the checks are. And how the people that make the fat checks cry and blame the Governer, when the spigot is turned off.


Posted by fretsferrari, a resident of Whisman Station
on Jul 23, 2009 at 9:24 pm

Elected city counsel/government employees will always use the argument that "competitive" salaries are necessary for hiring "quality" school administrators and other bureaucrats. Hence, Mtn. View must compete with Los Altos, which must compete with Palo Alto, etc. In today's economic climate I wonder how many "qualified" administrators would take a school district job for less than $190,000 (much less $216,000)? Meanwhile, teachers (working on the "front-line") are being laid off in local districts - does this make any sense?


Posted by parent, a resident of Shoreline West
on Jul 24, 2009 at 2:58 pm

Ask any successful adult what "made a difference" in their life and they will no doubt tell you about an outstanding teacher who provided excellent instruction, caring guidance, and personal encouragement.

Who remembers the personal impact their superintendent had?!

A student can learn even if he/she has a lousy superintendent and an excellent teacher, but the reverse is NEVER true. Public education is only as good as the teacher with whom the student has that day-in, day-out, one-to-one relationship.

Just substitute the word "teacher" throughout this article and ask yourself, when is the last time, if ever, you heard THAT conversation!

I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry.
---------------------------------

"As with city management, in the competitive world of school districts there is the challenge of keeping good TEACHERS 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 TEACHER'S pay. At that point, the board will want to hire the most competent TEACHER 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 TEACHERS. We don't believe any school board is eager to overpay a TEACHER, but we also doubt they would risk losing the best TEACHER over a few thousand dollars.


Posted by kanan krishnan, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 24, 2009 at 10:24 pm

I agree the state should not take money away from the local govts. but the local govt are running like small raj (kingdom) and the officials are paying themselves and their cronies hefty pay rises and simply squandering money away as it comes in instead of saving it for a rainy day. this is what 'we the people' get for not standing up while these clowns spend our money like its their credit card. city manager,school superintendents,etc..are making way over too much money as salary ..if u talk about perks like housing allowance,car allowance,etc..i think it is better that somebody is taking away the money and letting these people run dry.


Posted by close reader, a resident of another community
on Jul 25, 2009 at 10:18 am

"Who remembers the personal impact their superintendent had?"

The teachers do, of course. A good supe sets the tone for the whole district. If he or she is respected and does a good job, the principals and teachers are happier and more secure.

This should be pretty obvious.


Posted by Teacher, a resident of Monta Loma
on Jul 25, 2009 at 11:38 am

Close Reader:

Teachers are most concerned with the tone within their classroom, and then their school, specifically with their colleagues and principal and the relationship they maintain with the local school community, namely the parents.

The current MV superintendent is not respected. He makes increasing demands on teachers' contact time with students while he has no background in elementary teaching. Respect will only come when there's a superintendent who has demonstrated or proven he or she knows what it takes to teach in a classroom, rather than just talk about it using corporate management speak.

Let's see what happens when the MV teachers' contract is renegotiated this coming year. We'll find out how much respect there is and how happier and more secure teachers feel. Hint: And with the bad economy and the fact the the superintendent will no doubt be making even more money this year, with full health benefits paid for, I wouldn't count on much.


Posted by Disgusted, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 29, 2009 at 6:56 pm

I thought the grand jury did a very thorough job. They produced thoroughly researched, factual information from which we can all form our own conclusions. I think the grand jury made some very intelligent suggestions. I was disgusted when I recently read how cynically a local school district (Cupertino Union) abused public money to try to cover up child abuse by one of its teachers. The administration, the school board, and the greedy school district lawyers were all at fault. We-the-people need to hold our school board members accountable for making sure our money is used wisely and our children are kept safe. We should be able to rely on them to make sure superintendents behave ethically and legally. We need to elect people who will put our children first. Cupertino Union SO needs a change of board members. I hope the grand jury report results in more of these underhanded districts being audited and the results made public.


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