Given widespread angst over public employee pay, school staff cuts and teacher-management labor issues, Minneapolis Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson should have known better.
Her recent decision to approve more than $270,000 in retroactive pay raises to executive staff showed a disturbing lack of sensitivity to the financial realities in her district.
It's not that top-notch administrators don't deserve competitive salaries, but the timing for the raises couldn't have been worse. Johnson also should have done a more effective job making the case for the pay hikes to the school board and to the public.
Based on a consultant's study that concluded some school administrators were underpaid (and that some were overpaid), lump-sum checks were sent to 35 administrators retroactive to July 2010.
A consultant found that 75 percent of district employees are compensated slightly above market and that 38 percent received more than 5 percent below the average for people working similar jobs in other districts.
On average, the employees who received raises are paid $100,000 per year. The executive workers are not represented by a union, and all serve at the pleasure of the superintendent, who earns $190,000 annually. She hires, fires and sets compensation for the 60 people who are part of the central office group. About half of the employees in the group received raises.
News of the pay hikes hit near the end of a 20-day Minnesota state government shutdown and just a month after the Minneapolis district said it would cut at least 118 jobs, including 52 teachers, to help with a $20 million deficit.
Although the back pay represents a small portion of the district's $600 million budget, it sends the wrong message to constituents -- some of whom already have trust issues with the district.
Even though setting pay is and should remain the superintendent's decision, Johnson should have discussed such a sensitive matter with the board. The administration says a spring board review of the consultant's study should have alerted board members that raises were coming.
And Johnson told an editorial writer that the previous board reviewed and accepted the study's findings -- including a provision that called for paying back pay when the study was concluded and accepted by the board.
Still, some current board members said they didn't know the checks would be cut so soon. The board, which added five new members in January, is about to begin teacher contract negotiations. It wasn't the right time for an unwelcome surprise from the superintendent's office.
Johnson does deserve credit for initiating the district's first comprehensive review of executive pay in more than 25 years. Her review and the study revealed needed moves to put pay and benefits in line with fiscal realities.
The district's senior leadership team took a 2 percent pay cut in 2009, and overall benefits were cut 5 percent for the group. New health care premiums were put in place, and other perks, such as the ability to cash out vacation time, were eliminated. Pay inequities between similar jobs were changed, and benefits that over the years had been set with individuals became more uniform.
The Minneapolis district needs talented teachers and administrators to meet the great challenges it faces, and keeping the best employees is an important goal. Johnson studied and responded to pay inequities with the best intentions, but the worst possible timing.
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