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Pay raises draw fire: Some school officials get hikes over 30 percent in two years

Kevin Maxwell, chief executive of Prince George's County Public Schools, left, and County Executive Rushern L Baker III, speak to reporters in 2017. (Donna St. George/The Washington Post)

A string of top officials in the Prince George’s County school system received pay raises of more than $30,000 over the past several years, prompting some school board members to denounce “excessive and reckless salary increases.”

A letter from the three-member minority bloc of the school board, issued Wednesday, cited a jump of $49,780 — or 36 percent — in the pay of the district’s chief of strategic and external affairs over less than two years. The director of employee performance and evaluation received a boost of $35,758, or 35 percent, also in less than two years.

And a deputy superintendent’s salary climbed 26 percent, to $222,144, in less than four years, according to the letter and an accompanying salary spreadsheet.

“The excessive pay increases for executive staff in the central office compared to the minimal pay increases for teachers and school-based staff is downright shameful and unacceptable,” the letter said.

The raises were defended by the chief executive of Maryland’s second-largest school district, Kevin Maxwell, who said in a statement that he possesses the authority to hire and set salaries for his cabinet and that pay is on par with other large urban school systems. Cabinet salaries, he said, have been “historically lower than neighboring jurisdictions.”

Maxwell’s 17 cabinet members earn from $141,000 to just over $222,000, and many have collected more than one raise in a year, according to the newly released figures.

Maxwell did not address the individual raises directly but attributed them as a group to “greater job responsibilities, improved pay parity and/or increased cost of living.”

Employee pay has been a budget priority, he said, and he has approved more than $100 million in teacher raises over the past five years after several years of salary freezes.

“I believe strongly that much more work needs to be done to make Prince George’s County teacher salaries — and all employee salaries — more competitive with neighboring school systems,” Maxwell said.

The controversy over the raises comes as Maxwell’s boss, County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), seeks the Democratic nomination for governor in Maryland.

And it emerges a little over a month after the school board’s minority bloc wrote to Baker about unauthorized raises among several human resources employees, setting off a public furor.

In decrying the executive raises, the board members said many educators use their own money to buy items for their classrooms, and they invoked the national wave of teacher protests over low pay and benefits and poorly funded schools.

“Across our country, teachers are rising up and demanding the respect that they deserve,” board members wrote. “In West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, teachers have come together and organized effectively and courageously to fight for fair wages and treatment by school system leaders. If the leaders of [the school district] don’t immediately work together . . . Prince George’s County could be next.”

Teacher walkouts have roiled the nation in recent weeks. West Virginia educators closed schools for nine days, ultimately winning a 5 percent raise for teachers and all state workers. Since then, teachers in Arizona, Kentucky and Oklahoma have protested or walked out.

‘They have had it’: West Virginia teachers strike, closing all public schools

Doris Reed, executive director of the Association of Supervisory & Administrative School Personnel, the union that represents principals and other administrators in Prince George’s County, said she was stunned by the raises.

“This is inexcusable,” she said. “We negotiated for six months to get our people a 3 percent increase, and the CEO is giving these outrageous amounts to his executive staff. . . . The people who actually work in the schools don’t deserve at least as much of an increase?”

School district officials in neighboring Montgomery County said Wednesday that Superintendent Jack Smith’s cabinet includes five members, with each earning roughly $200,000 to $225,000. Raises are in line with negotiated agreements for other employees and are approved by the school board, officials said.

In many school systems nationally, cabinet-level administrators get raises that resemble pay increases for other employees, said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. This has been especially true since the budget-tightening that followed the 2008 recession, he said.

“Superintendents tend to be on high ground when they give raises that are in line with what other employees are receiving,” he said.

The letter from the school board’s minority bloc was addressed to Baker, the county executive. It urged Baker, who hired Maxwell in 2013 and reappointed him last year, to impose a moratorium on executive cabinet hiring and salary increases, to put aside $1 million for classroom supplies, and to work with the district to help boost teacher and staff salaries by 4 percent.

Asked about the matter at an event Wednesday morning, Baker — who had not yet reviewed the letter — told reporters that Maxwell has authority to make hiring and salary decisions and that he thinks the school board would look at questions about cabinet raises being so much greater than other employee raises.

“I’m certainly sure that’s something that the school board members can bring up in their discussions,” he said.

Lupi Quinteros-Grady, a member of the school board’s majority, said she and other board members reviewed the figures a week ago and requested more information from Maxwell. “We have asked the administration to provide an explanation and a justification for the increases,” she said.

Allegations of unauthorized pay increases roil Prince George’s school system

The unauthorized raises for human resources employees — which district officials variously reported as involving four, five or six workers — were given outside of contractual agreements at the same time a proposal from the minority bloc that would have increased teacher pay was rejected.

District officials later released an internal audit that documented the problem showing that one employee earning about $95,000 a year received a 12 percent hike, while another got a boost of nearly $7,900, for a salary of more than $75,300.

Maxwell called the raises “unjustifiable” at the time and said safeguards had been put in place so that raises would require proper justification and approval.

Improper pay raises documented for four in Prince George’s school system

Members of the minority bloc — Edward Burroughs III, Raaheela Ahmed and David Murray — say they recognize that Maxwell had authority to bestow the cabinet-level raises but called the pay hikes disturbing.

“You can tell what someone’s values are by what they spend their money on, and it’s clear that Dr. Maxwell values himself and a handful of executives more than our teachers and support staff and the students they serve every day,” Burroughs said.