The highest-paid teacher in the Maryland county where I live earned more than $150,850 a year in salary alone. But you’d never know that from the salary statistics published by the Maryland State Department of Education.
The statistics for beginning, mid-level and maximum salaries are based on schedules, not actual salaries. But a teacher’s salary schedule — based on years of experience and degrees — merely sets base pay. In my county, one’s salary schedule position is only one of 72 pay codes. A small sample of other pay codes include extracurriculars (e.g., coaching), teaching summer school, unused leave and overtime. Such omissions explain how the maximum pay on the salary schedule may be reported as $96,114 but one teacher earned $150,850.
MSDE reports salary schedule statistics in a table comparing the 24 Maryland school districts. But the numbers don’t lend themselves to meaningful comparability. For example, the number of work days per year that defines a 10-month teacher, work hours per day and work years to reach the maximum pay level each varies by more than 10 percent. Teachers on a 12-month (260-day) schedule may earn 36 percent more than those on a 10-month (191-day) schedule. Counterintuitively, mid-level salary ranges can decrease when salaries dramatically increase, as happened in my county when many intermediate steps were added to the salary schedule.
MSDE also publishes an “average” salary statistic based on actual teacher salaries. This statistic takes the cake for obfuscation, as MSDE claims not to even know the detailed methodology local school districts use to generate it. MSDE’s breathtakingly short instruction to districts is: “Report annual salaries for the 2015-2016 school year, including bonuses, stipends, etc.”
In 2008, I started using Maryland’s Public Information Act to request raw salary data from Anne Arundel County Public Schools. My intent was to transform this data into useful statistics. In response, AACPS complained to the Maryland General Assembly that salary-related information at an individual level shouldn’t be public information and emailed thousands of its employees complaining that I had requested such information. The result: My phone rang off the hook with angry employees. Because I had children in the school and the email recipients included my children’s teachers, I ended my quest to gather and analyze the data.
Once my kids graduated, however, I decided to continue it. During each of the past three years, I requested the raw salary-related data. Even identifying it was hard: AACPS considers the payroll fields in its $4.5 million payroll software system to be confidential, as the operating manual with that information is the software vendor’s proprietary information.
AACPS agreed that salary information was public information, and it usually responded to my Public Information Act requests within the 30 days required by law. But the data it provided had material flaws, albeit varying, including teachers whose salaries would be more than $200,000 a year if their part-time work was normalized to full-time; full-time-equivalent (FTE) totals for fiscal years that added up to more than AACPS’s widely reported FTE totals; reported salary data without the requested FTE data to determine what the FTE salary data would be; missing pay codes that were covered under my Public Information Act requests; changes from year to year in the methodologies used to report individual pay codes and salaries without any acknowledgment or explanation of the changed methodologies; and arbitrary changes from year to year in the interpretation of the law regarding which individual pay codes were legally public information.
Despite MSDE’s claim that the detailed methodology for calculating average salary was locally determined, AACPS refused to provide any information about its methodology other than MSDE’s general guidelines.
No Maryland citizen should have to endure such intimidation, effort and expense to get public data. Fortunately, a very simple and inexpensive solution exists: MSDE should disclose on Maryland’s Open Data Portal all the raw salary data that is legally public, including actual salaries. With such data, the public could verify MSDE’s published statistics. More important, it could generate its own statistics on politically sensitive questions that MSDE and local districts won’t generate on their own.
Adjacent to the raw data should be MSDE’s exact methodology for generating its salary statistics. MSDE should replace its rigged statistics with the conventional display of salary distributions across an organization or occupation: For each employee bargaining unit, including teachers, MSDE should provide a simple line graph showing total salary at every percentage, including every decile and the top 1 percent.
The politics of making public salary data meaningfully public are daunting. But politicians in other states have found the courage to do so. Maryland’s will one day, too.
The writer is president of iSolon.org.