Monday, May 25, 2009

Refocusing the sunshine

A frequent if anonymous tipster sent this one in by e-mail. It's another plum pick from the Society for Quality Education, probably the closest thing Canada has to a U.S. style school-choice lobby group for education. In a May 2009 analysis completed by SQE president Malkin Dare, she uses the annual Ontario Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act to bolster the society's case that school choice and charter schools are the cure for all of the ills of publicly funded education. The longer I looked at it the more I wanted to delve, hence the length of this post.
Her report contains the society's analysis of the number of the number of $100K+ salary earners in publicly funded school boards against each board's average daily enrolment as reported to the Ministry of Education. In an era of declining enrolment where public sector salaries have not been frozen or cut back, it's no surprise the ratio of $100K+ earners to students is increasing. That in and of itself is not shocking news, it's simple cut-and-paste math-- hardly worth the bevvy of exclamation marks that punctuate Dare's report.
Reporting on the so-called Sunshine List is a god-send to the very people who created the legislation mandating it, the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario and those supporters who lie even further to the right on the political spectrum. Despite the Tories being out of power in Ontario since 2003, every March/April their spindoctoring gets a big boost from the Sunshine List legislation. On the day the disclosures are released, the media is full of stories of who the highest-paid civil servants are and commentary from those who are simply galled by the increases -- both to individual salaries and to the number of people on the list.
Yet the list itself is fraught with problems, the biggest and best being the very limit itself. $100K has always been a lot of money, but in the grand spectre of things, it doesn't buy what it did when the legislation was first passed. If we wanted to remain shocked about overpaid civil servants, the act should have indexed the $100K to inflation from the day it came into effect in 1996. The Bank of Canada's inflation calculator tells us that number in 2009 dollars would be $128,410.37. Or, vice-versa, if someone earned $77,875.33 in 1996 and increases had exactly matched inflation, s/he would be earning $100K in 2009.
So, the bulk of those who get "added" to the list every year arrive there through no specific action on their part. They simply benefited from a cost-of-living increase.
To flush out this point a little bit, I did my own analysis of the past three years' release (2007-09, covering salaries paid in 2006-08) of school boards' sunshine lists. Find the spreadsheet over on GoogleDocs if you want to take a look for yourself.
Some observations -- as seen in the data:
  • There were 1,630 educators who appeared on the lists published in 2009, 2008 and 2007
  • None of the educators who earned $100K+ in 2007-9 were on the 2006 published list.
  • The average increase from 2006 to 2007 was 3.64 per cent, the median was 2.8 per cent. Remember the 2007 list published salaries earned in 2006, and so on.
  • From 2007 to 2008, average 3.96 per cent, median 3.25.
  • From 2007-09 (three years), the average increase was 7.75 per cent and the median was 6.32.
Data is always open to interpretation -- but these were the questions I asked the data in an attempt to show some of the detail it contains that SQE either didn't or wouldn't look at because it doesn't support its cause. The Hamilton Spectator reported along very similar lines on the growth of the list several years ago, but I can't find the article online.
Given the year-to-year average and median increases, the salaries of the bulk of those on the lists rose each year by a number close to the inflation for that year-- or as further investigation would no doubt reveal, by the percentage increase granted in their duly negotiated and ratified collective agreements with school boards.
Looking at the individuals whose percentage increase year over year exceeded the median shows either other counterparts in the same board receiving the same percentage increase (another sign of a collective agreement in place), or that the individual received a promotion. My analysis did not track whether the individual's position changed from year-to-year, but this information is stated in the Ministry of Finance reports.
I don't know about you, but if I receive a promotion, I would expect the increased responsibility to come with a related improvement to my compensation package.
Also, if I was a member of an employee group, I would not tolerate being held back from earning my mutually agreed-upon increase just because that puts me in the $100K+ club and the optics allow for statements like the SQE's.
Here's the really fun part, and I've done this math on here before. Given the four-year deals now in effect for all school board employees, with most getting three per cent per year (except those elementary teachers...), the list is just going to keep on growing. Anyone making $88K in those employee groups on Aug. 31, 2008, just signed a deal in the last nine months that will see them reach $100K by 2012. Meaning in either 2013 or 2014, they'll be on the Sunshine List too.
There are too many things built into the system(s) to keep the number of people on the Sunshine List who work in school boards from getting any smaller. Being outraged about it won't do any good unless you're prepared to wage war on the unions and get them to accept wage rollbacks -- and that simply isn't going to happen without every child in the province getting some long strike-related vacations.
What we can do is make sure that boards tie their staffing to their enrolment. If a board's population decline equals fewer superintendents, trustees should be making the cut. If the board's decline means an even greater cut to administration than what the ministry is already asking for in 2010-11, do it. Even that won't solve the growing list, since in union environments you chop from the bottom up, meaning you'll be axing the $35K teachers, not the $92K ones.
We can also ask for the best bang for our dollar-- which I think is what SQE is trying to point out, except the message gets clouded by its advocacy for school choice (aka charter schools and/or voucher schools).


educ8m said...

I think what is more telling about Dare's report is the fact that enrolment is dropping but the numbers of high paid education personnel is increasing out of preportion to the former. It just begs the question of whether acheivement is improving in those fewer students.

Education spending in the province is about $19 Billion. Are we getting bang for the buck?
When we are churning kids out of high school with little attention to standards, it makes one wonder.

educ8m said...

I meant proportion in the last post--Dyslexic finger!

Anonymous said...

Ed. Reporter wrote "We can also ask for the best bang for our dollar..which is I think what SQE is trying to point out, except the message gets clouded by it advocacy for choice (aka charter schools and/or voucher schools)"

I'm not sure why you're making it out to be offensive that the public knows by as many different vehicles as possible where their tax dollars are going. Could it be that you maybe have already prejudged the SQE group and school choice, or have bought in to the myths of choice that you've likely heard or read about?

Given the eagerness of boards to close schools, or get into heated community discussions over balanced school days, it's reasonable, as you suggest that the numbers of those well-paid administrators and bureaucrats(who I think make up the lion's share of he high-earners in a board) decrease by the same rate as pupils decline.

I bothers me more that there are those making a great salary who never see the inside of a classroom.

I'd sooner pay teachers more based on merit than pay board staff and/or bureaucrat to manage few students.

Principals make a large number of he $100K earners too. Some may deserve it, others not so much.
How are those evaluations done and how transparent are the results and criteria?

Education Reporter said...

The last anon:
You write as though assuming principals' salaries and wage increases are done through evaluation and merit. They're not. They are an employee group and their salaries, benefits and working conditions are negotiated just like teachers' are. Ditto for superintendents and other administration staff. In most boards, the only non-union or non-association staff are some of the managers (very few) and the director of education.
Everyone else's salaries and benefits are tied to a grid.

As to school choice-- the jury's still out on that one for me, particularly after attending the EWA conference. SQE presents some compelling information, but it's twisted to serve its interests and the manipulation of the sunshine data only proved that.

Anonymous said...

I know that Principal's salaries aren't decided on merit. My comment that "some might deserve it, some not" speaks to exactly that point.

That perhaps they should be earning by merit.

My question is who evaluates them and how does the public know if principals are worth what they earn?
Where can the public read the criteria used for measuring principal performance?

The SQE info. is probably as twisted as are the government analysis we get after every revelation of the EQAO scores, which are regularly twisted to that cause too, no?

Then again, you site having one too many exclamation marks as something ominous, so it sure sounds like you've made up your mind on parents being able to choose between charters, and public schools.

How about those alternative schools which are run just like charters that the taxpayer pays for in the TDSB? I do believe if you go to their website you'll see that those parents have choice.

And, recently the TDSB is looking to expand to include more alternatives.

What do you have against charters and vouchers for the kids who may need something other than what the public system can provide. Not all kids to well in a traditional classroom.

Education Reporter said...

My point on the overuse of exclamation points was one of style and grammar, not opinion on the charter or voucher school issue. Particularly from a society president who's a former educator.
I have concerns about charter schools, probably fewer in number than I have about publicly funded school boards. The cold truth is for the moment I don't know enough about the issue of charter schools or voucher schools.
The bullshit detector does go off, loudly, however, when a society for "quality" education is so blatantly in favour of school choice that it works its bias into something it tries to present as a dispassionate analysis of the Sunshine List v. enrolment.
You want to know what a principal is evaluated on? Ask for a blank evaluation form. Or, if they don't give it to you, cough up the $5 and file a Freedom of Information request.
"Merit" based pay raises, etc.... well, I guess that depends on who's defining what "merit" is. Which is not a ringing endorsement from me in any way on the union-style promotions/raises/etc that happen just because you've been there longest.
Ask your board for its policy / procedure on selection of principals. It *should* have one. One does not become principal by being around longer than others-- it's become quite an intensive process.