Do you know how much top administrators at your school make?
Employee contracts can provide reporters with newsworthy information about how a public school is utilizing taxpayer money for employee salaries and other benefits.
Every record created by a public agency or government body, including public schools, is presumed to be open unless a law dictates it must be private. The federal government protects the public’s right to salary information and federal and state open records law mandates if individually identifiable records are public.
The burden falls on the record-keeper to point to the law that requires them to keep a record closed. These Freedom of Information Act exemptions vary by state, so the Reporter’s Committee Open Government Guide compiled a list of salary disclosures where you can search and compare laws in any state.
According to SPLC Senior Legal Counsel, Mike Heistand, budgets and salary schedules (outlines of pay levels employees can receive), are always open records in every state. Accessing these records can be simple. Heistand said he recommends searching for a school’s budget online first. If it is not available online, request the document in person at the school business office.
How do I obtain contracts?
SPLC Staff Attorney Sommer Ingram Dean says public records requests are the best way to access information about public school or university employee salaries. Dean said requesting records is fairly simple: reporters must send a request in writing that reasonably describes the records they’re looking for — for example, an employee contract of a certain professor — to a Freedom of Information office or an appropriate source in the school budget office.
Records keepers must respond to requests within a time frame set by the state’s open records law, and must provide an estimated cost for that record. State law will prescribe an exact amount of time they have to either give the record or explain why it’s exempt. If the requester has not received the record, or a response, in the required time frame, they should access SPLC’s legal hotline for help.
The cost of obtaining a record also varies depending on things like printing costs, the cost of labor (how long it took to find the record in question) and other fees. Dean said if costs are exorbitant, student journalists should ask for a full breakdown of the charges and consider making a counter offer. They should also consider contacting the SPLC legal hotline. In some cases, processing fees may be waived if the requester can demonstrate that the document is in the public interest.
SPLC has a public records letter generator to help students formulate requests. This tool creates letters that specify how long records keepers have to respond based on their state’s law. The tool also allows the requester to specify how much they are willing to pay for the records.
Additionally, many states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and California, have free online databases that contain salary information of government and public school system employees. Some local newspapers, including The Baltimore Sun, The Texas Tribune and The State in South Carolina, also have free databases that report information about state employee salaries.
Potential story ideas
Student journalists can use information from school employee contracts for all kinds of news stories.
- How much does the top administrator at my school get paid, and where does that money come from?
- What are some of the benefits the top administrators of my school get in terms of paid housing, vehicle use, free parking on campus, and travel and entertainment budgets?
- Are there conduct and conflict-of-interest rules?
- Are there incentives to receive bonus pay?
- Is deferred compensation permitted?
- What is the contribution to their retirement plan?
- How is success measured, and when is the contract subject to review and renewal?
- How do the salaries of employees vary based on department?
- What are the job descriptions of each position at my school?
- What are the terms of the athletic director’s contract?
- Under what circumstances can they receive bonuses, and how much?
- Are they subject to the same gifts policy, conduct and conflict-of-interest policies as top academic administrators?
- What are the provisions when a coach or administrator’s contract is ended early, such as a buyout?
- How long are employee contracts signed for?
- On average, what is the salary of new teachers or professors at my school compared to tenured employees?
Dean said contracts can provide information of interest to the public beyond just salaries.
“There have been football coaches who get to use a private jet for personal use or things like that, so … by requesting the contract not only can you get the number amount they are making for their salary, but any other sort of benefits and things like that. It can be a treasure trove of information,” Dean said.
For any story, context is important. Stories about salaries or contracts should acknowledge the person’s responsibilities in terms of meeting certain educational or athletics goals, student and faculty safety and well being and the size of the budget they manage. Also, how does the salary and benefits package compare with neighboring school districts or similarly sized colleges/universities? Did the administrator’s recent predecessors receive comparable employment packages? Consider things like cost of living differences by region of the country.
With more records requests, journalists can also access information about how much administrators and teachers were paid in overtime. Additionally, employee contracts can be a beneficial point of reference if a teacher or administrator has just left a school under ominous circumstances.
After collecting this information, student journalists should give the subject(s) of these stories a chance to respond — let them explain what their job entails and why they’re being compensated in the way they are.
What about private schools?
According to Hiestand, all nonprofits, including private schools, are required to provide the IRS Form 990 (their federal tax return) upon request. The form will disclose the five highest paid employees and the compensation of up to 20 “key employees” who make more than $150,000. However, employee contracts at private schools are not public information.
Things to keep in mind when reporting
Although public school employee contracts are public, there may be personnel records or disciplinary records that student journalists don’t have full access to. The information in these records may pertain to their IRS tax withholding forms, termination documentation or litigation documents. Exemptions for personnel files vary greatly based on state, so some information may be redacted.
Dean said there are certain situations where courts have ruled that public interest matters more than personal privacy, mainly in cases of sexual assault. But typically, reporters have to rely on information provided by sources if records aren’t public.
When covering stories about employee salaries, reporters must make ethical considerations regarding publishing private or potentially harmful information. If it is not newsworthy or of public importance, Dean said it’s best to refrain.
“You always want to be mindful of truly personal information and most of the time the law is going to protect that information anyway,” Dean said.
SPLC reporter Alicia Thomas can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 202-974-6318.
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