The “Me Too” Raise in Education

August 2023

Ever gotten a raise?

That’s a silly question, right?

You know how it works. The boss calls you into the office, spends some time telling you what a great job you’re doing (right?), and you hear the words “starting with your next check you’ll be making more money.”

Hallelujah! Time to take the spouse or friends out to dinner to celebrate!

Now… does anyone think they’ve ever worked for a boss who got more money themselves when they gave you more? What?

Isn’t the boss’s raise, like yours, dependent on doing a better job, contributing to the company, improving your skills, and demonstrating you’re worth more to the organization?

Can you imagine a better situation – for you – than having a boss with a personal stake in giving you more money? The larger the raise they give, the larger the raise they get, whether they earned it or not?

That doesn’t happen in private industry. Why? Because it’s obviously wrong. It puts personal incentive into the decision for the manager for making a decision one way or the other based on their own pay, not on the performance of the employee.

In private industry if a CEO found out one of their managers had worked out such a deal it would be grounds for disciplinary action, perhaps even a firing offense.

But – believe it or not – it’s standard in K-12 education. It’s called the “me too” raise, and it doesn’t happen because it makes sense, but because it’s “traditional.” Must be nice to have a tradition that just happens without question in a way that increases the pay of the people responsible for managing that tradition.

In education, once an agreement is reached on a new contract with a labor group (teachers or classified staff), the same percentage bonus raise is applied to executive, management, or “confidential” employees – the superintendents, assistant superintendents, and other high level administrators who are not part of their own labor group.

The same people who “negotiated” the raise for the labor groups.

If you’ve been to the board meetings involving discussion of those contracts, you’ve seen the impassioned pleas by teachers or support staff outlining their desperate need for more money. Whether based on actual data or not the pitch is strong that the employee group negotiating is poorly paid and “deserves” more money.

Never in those negotiations – not once – do we hear about the plight of the poor underpaid superintendent and their executive staff.

Perhaps that’s because the median total compensation of a San Diego County K-12 Superintendent in 2021 was $273,623, with the median total comp of a school administrator overall at $177,396.

“We need a raise” generates much more empathy when teachers and support staff take the podium to describe their personal hardships. The fact that raise will be applied to a group of people making close to $200,000/year is not part of the discussion.

As a recent example of the “me too” raise process, let’s look at San Diego Unified ’s June 2023 contract negotiations, where SDUSD agreed to give a bonus raise to its certificated union (the SDEA) of 15% spread over three years.

The approval process involves a standard disclosure of the costs involved, which must be submitted to the County Office of Education (COE). The COE then then does its own analysis of the financial impact of the proposed agreement and sends the district a “response letter” outlining that analysis. If the cost of the agreement might put the district in financial danger the COE will call that out in this letter.

The SDUSD disclosure indicates approval will result in ongoing increases in cost to the district of about $208 million per year (for all employees.) The COE response letter says:

In other words, approval of this bonus raise will result in a need to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from other programs and services. And, given the purpose of every dollar spent by a school district is to educate kids, the only place those cuts can come from is from things that will affect that education.

The ethics of adding to the district’s deficit in ways that will result in cuts from our kids education to put more money in the bank accounts of adults is itself questionable but the process is legal.

Regardless, wouldn’t one think the board might want to discuss this? Perhaps lower paid employees should get a bonus raise that phases out as income increases? Maybe cutting from the education of our kids is a worthwhile tradeoff to giving an extra bump to low paid employees, but not to those making $200K plus? Maybe a 15% raise for someone making $50K ($7500) is different than a 15% raise for someone making $308K ($46,000)?

And keep in mind this raise being proposed is a bonus raise. Not the only raise employees will get but in addition to periodic raises built into their salary schedules.

Sounds like a discussion any group of elected officials responsible for representing the best interests of the education of kids might want to have, doesn’t it?

Nope. In their June 20th, 2023 meeting the board considered this set of bonus raises. They spent 75 seconds on it from introduction to approval of the agreement. Most of that time was spent congratulating their administration on what a great job they had done negotiating a nice big raise for themselves.

And, in the very next meeting, June 27th, we saw approval of that “me too” raise.

Note there is no indication this raise is based on performance in any way. Executives and management will receive their raises immaterial of the fact that the district has seen nothing but declining academic performance and declining enrollment in recent years.

At SDUSD, the latest state reporting shows only 53 percent of students meet standards for English and only a miserable 41 percent making the grade in math. Both are significant declines from the last full data set, published in 2019.

Unlike the original bonus raise, which at least generated 75 seconds of discussion, this bonus raise was approved at the 6/27 meeting with no discussion at all. Total time between introduction and approval? 29 seconds. For a total of 104 seconds of discussion, on a topic that added hundreds of millions of dollars to the district’s deficit and will require cuts from the education of kids to fund.

And also in that same meeting? A resolution introduced for the board to approve the cuts needed to fund those raises:

Which was approved with, as usual, zero discussion of those cuts. Cutting hundreds of millions from the education of kids to add to the paychecks of adults is so routine as to not be even worth discussion by the Board.

Let’s look at what the team involved in “negotiating” this bonus raise worked out – for themselves.

The table below shows the members of that negotiating team (obtained from SDUSD), their compensation as of 2022 and the projected impact of their 15% increase.

The current “Total Pay and Pension” is based on data obtained from SDUSD via public record request on their 2022 compensation.

This data can be found at Transparent California as well.

The blanks under the SDEA team are there because those names do not show up in the data. I presume that means they are not SDUSD employees but are being paid by the union.

The amount shown under “15% bonus raise” is calculated by applying a 15% increase to total pay as well as contributions made to their retirement plan, which are calculated based on total pay and therefore increase as pay increases. Healthcare costs are excluded from this calculation, since they are not dependent on pay.

Note that the District team stands to benefit by almost $283,000 in this, with the SDEA team coming out $210,000 ahead.

The fact that the SDEA team benefits from this agreement is a given. They’re the ones negotiating on their own behalf, of course approval of a bonus raise would benefit them.

The fact that the District team also benefits from this agreement – and actually benefits personally even more than the SDEA team – is an illustration of what is wrong with the “me too” raise.

We are told the District is negotiating “on behalf of our kids”, as instructed by the Board, who are elected to represent parents. But we hear nothing from the Board on this, not one single word during negotiations indicating what guidance they are giving the District team.

And exactly how “hard nosed” do we expect the negotiations “on behalf of our kids” by Ms. Michelli and Mr. Rowland to be, when every lower number they might suggest would also result in lower raises for themselves. If the percentage were cut in half, for instance, do we expect the negotiating team to be happy with the fact that this cuts their own anticipated raises by tens of thousands of dollars?

If you could simply say “yes” and make yourself almost $4000 more a month without facing the uproar that would happen by saying “no”, where would your incentives lie?

Again, in private industry a manager who did that might find themselves in the unemployment line, but in schools? As we saw in the San Diego Unified Board Meeting, they are congratulated for “how much work went into this thing…”

And we wonder why our school districts are often on the edge of insolvency, needing to cut from our kids education, and blaming it on “lack of funding”.

Isn’t it always easier to blame “someone else” for your problems, especially when doing that results in more money in your own bank account?

Is taking money from kids to benefit yourself and then blaming your failure to prioritize their education on “someone else” really a message we want to send to kids?

The ”me too” raise is one of the most corrupt practices in government. Your own district does it – guaranteed. Let them know you understand which shell the money is under, and vote accordingly in the next School Board election.