USING OPEN RECORDS: Public school salary information can lead to better stories

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A citizen’s right to know and journalists’ rights to report are threatened every day, say the organizers of Sunshine Week, who planned the weeklong program to highlight freedom of information issues and emphasize the importance of open government. The Student Press Law Center is celebrating Sunshine Week with a series of reports on how student journalists can encourage open government and use open records to expand their journalistic horizons and let the sunshine in.

Who gets paid more — teachers at your high school or your cross-town rival? Did your university’s president receive a bigger raise last year than most professors?

Unlike some open records requests, accessing salary information at your high school or university can offer a better glimpse into your school’s chain of command.

Besides knowing how much your high school’s principal or university’s president may have earned last year, salary information can be a great starting point for other enterprise stories.

Only public schools are obligated to disclose salary information. At private schools, you may be able to find some salary information for top administrators by requesting the school’s Form 990 tax form, which all non-profit organizations are required to file with the federal government.

Once you know which category your school falls under, you are ready to begin.

Obtaining your institution’s salary information depends on which office manages the school’s budget and salaries. But your school district or college’s financial office generally is a good place to start.

Check to see if you can obtain your school district or university budget from the library. Your question could be answered without having to confront an administrator or wait for a response to an open records request.

Before you slap an open records request letter down on an administrator’s desk, always ask to see the salary information first. Use request letters only when if one is requested or if your verbal request is denied.

How do you write an open record request letter? You could contact a media law professor, but an even easier option is to visit the State Open Records Law Letter Generator on the Student Press Law Center Web site, it’s free, easy and is individually tailored to the open records laws in your state.

To find out how one public university handles salary information requests, the Student Press Law Center checked out the University of Maryland in College Park, Md.

Dale Anderson, director of university human resources, said his office discloses salary information it is obligated to share whenever a person provides an open records request letter.

Typically, requests are fulfilled for free as long as it does not take a staff member more than two hours to compile the requested information, Anderson said. If it takes longer –for requesting all salaries at the university, for instance — the school passes its supply and labor costs onto the requestor.

Anderson said that The Diamondback, Maryland’s student newspaper, and area labor unions typically request salary information from his office. The newspaper requests salaries for every university employee every year, pays the university for administrative costs and publishes information in a special section in April.

Diamondback News Editor Kevin Litten said the university salary special section is one of the most popular issues of the year, and helps generate additional advertising revenue. He forwarded a copy of the most recent salary information to the SPLC, which the paper requested in the spring of 2006.

“Students love to see what their professors make,” Litten said. “We get calls constantly from people who want to get a copy of it.”

Litten said that knowing how much professors and administrators make could have a strategic advantage, as well.

“I do know that it is used for renegotiating salaries and luring away faculty,” he said, based on the calls received about university salaries at The Diamondback.

While examining salary information, keep in mind that many faculty and staff can earn additional money that does not come from the state, which is not included in salary reports, Anderson said.

“If they have other provisions in their contract, that’s not going to be in there,” Anderson said.

For example, a headline a Diamondback headline could say: “University president earns more than football coach,” because according to the salary database, Maryland President Dan Mote’s $376,350 salary was nearly $155,000 greater than coach Ralph Friedgen’s 2005 earnings.

However, Friedgen’s actual compensation jumped to almost $1.7 million in 2006 when you include additional contract incentives, according to a Diamondback story.

Remember that although the numbers alone might not make the story, the information can be handy to have around when that next big story breaks.

A similar request for teachers’ salaries at a Montgomery County (Md.) high school was not completed before press time.

By Jared Taylor, SPLC staff writer