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By Ian K. Kullgren April 11, 2011

Sen. Hass says taxpayers could be getting three teachers for the price of one superintendent

Sen. Mark Hass has his sights set on Oregon’s 20 education service districts.

For the uninitiated, these districts allow smaller school districts to buy services collectively. As our colleague Kim Melton put it in a recent piece: they use "the buying power of several local districts to get better deals on high-cost services."

Hass, however, likes to call them "obscure" and "wasteful" and "administratively bloated." Ouch, ouch and ouch.

Hass is championing a bill that would give local school districts the option of taking their share of money out of the regional program. "Most notably," Melton reported, "this bill would reduce the amount of money education service districts get by half over two years, potentially sending an additional $100 million directly to local schools."

To help make his case that this legislation is sound, Hass has taken to using a particular (and compelling) statistic:

"For every one ESD superintendent position, we can pay for three speech pathologists, or three special needs instructors, or three classroom teachers."

That comes straight from a press release sent out by Senate Democrats on March 30, 2011, after the legislation was passed out of the Senate’s finance committee.

That’s not the only time he’s said it, though. Here’s what he told Melton: "For every one ESD superintendent position, we can pay for three speech pathologists, three classroom teachers."

Repetition generally gets our attention.

We went to the senator’s office to see if they had any information to back the claim up. Andy Smith, one of Hass’s legislative aides, sent us a few pieces of information.

To start, he gave us the annual salary and annual fringe benefits for the current superintendent of the Northwest Regional Educational Service District -- the district that serves 20 school districts, including Hass’s constituents. Taking into account perks like health insurance, a tax sheltered annuity and a mileage allowance, the superintendent makes roughly $220,000.

Then Smith gave us some figures about teachers working in the individual David Douglas School District. According to the district, teachers can make somewhere between $40,000 and $75,000. The monthly fringe benefit for a teacher in that district is $1,425 (for family coverage), which shifts the range to somewhere between $57,000 and $92,000.

Using those totals, it does appear that you could cash in the superintendent for just under four teachers at the very low end of the pay scale or 2.5 teachers at the high end.

But that doesn’t exactly tell the whole story here. For one, the superintendent of the Northwest Regional cooperative is the highest paid superintendent in the state. Hass isn’t talking about just this district -- he says, very clearly, "every one ESD." Words matter. We needed something a bit more middle-of-the-road.

With that in mind, we started collecting data, trying to get an idea of what the average teacher in Oregon makes and what the average ESD superintendent makes. Sounded simple. It was anything but.

We started with the Oregon Department of Education. Crystal Greene, the public affairs manager there, pointed us to a chart in the 2009-2010 Statewide Report Card. According to the document, for the 2009-2010 school year, on average, teachers made $55,000 and superintendents made $113,000. The department, however, doesn’t keep track of fringe benefits and they didn’t do an analysis of ESD superintendents specifically.

So, we asked Greene for a list of the base salaries of all ESD superintendents. There are currently 20 superintendents for 20 ESDs. That said, not all of those superintendents are full time; there are just 16 full-time equivalents. We calculated the average base salary for one full-time ESD superintendent to be about $113,000.

The next step was to find what their average annual fringe benefits (health care, mileage and tax sheltered annuities) came out to. If you look at the example Hass used, it’s about $54,000 -- or 33 percent of the annual salary. We spot-checked six of the highest-paid ESDs. The range was pretty wide -- one made about $18,000 extra (he doesn’t have a travel allowance, but he can use a car if necessary) while another made $46,000. If you take the average of the three highest fringe allowances, you get roughly $46,000. Add that to the annual salary figure and you have a price tag of something like $160,000 for your "average" ESD superintendent.

Now for a teacher. This one is even trickier. Some teachers get pension contributions; some don’t. Depending on the district, benefits might be higher for some than others. Then there are all sorts of differences depending on education level and tenure. The list goes on.

We asked Lisa Freiley with the Oregon School Boards Association to walk us through a quick calculation. (The OSBA, it should be noted, does not support the bill. Freiley, however, helped us without our saying why we were asking.) When we were done, we had an estimated price tag of about $76,000 for an average Oregon teacher. That average ignored any possible PERS contribution by the district on the teacher’s behalf.

The math, however, was a bit more back-of-the-envelope than we like, so we called up the Oregon Education Association. Spokeswoman Becca Uherbelau told us that they generally use $93,000 as their "average" estimate. That includes salary, pension contributions and health insurance. Again, she didn’t know why we were asking and had no reason to inflate the figure.

The association doesn’t keep a similar figure for speech pathologists or special education teachers. That said, generally speaking, special education teachers are not paid any differently from other teachers. Speech pathologists might come out a little better compensated than the average teacher given they’re likely coming to the jobs with more advanced degrees per position.

Now, if you use Uherbelau’s number, you can’t even buy two teachers for the price of one ESD superintendent. If you use our lower estimate of $74,000, you could buy two teachers and a little change -- but not the three Hass claims.

Throughout this process, we kept in touch with the senator’s office. It probably goes without saying, but Hass and his staff don’t much like our math. They argued that the senator was talking only about his district and the ESD that serves his district. But that’s clearly not what he said. Then they pointed out another pitfall: Superintendents come with an entourage. They mentioned assistant superintendents, assistants to the assistant superintendents and other office staff, some of whom make six-figure annual salaries themselves.

"It is not just the salary," Hass told us over the phone. "It is the infrastructure that comes with the office. … It's all of the perks that come with the office."

It’s probably true that if you figured all of that into the equation, it would change things considerably. But then, that’s not what Hass said. What’s more, parsing can be done for both sides. Milt Dennison, the superintendent of the Clackamas Education Service District, pointed out that he gets paid for 240 contracted days of work. The average speech pathologist is contracted for 190 days. That’s a pattern that seems to hold true, to one degree or another, for the other ESDs as well.

In any case, it’s important for us to stick to the original claim that "for every one ESD superintendent position, we can pay for three speech pathologists, or three special needs instructors, or three classroom teachers."

It may be true that education service districts are "obscure" and "wasteful" and "administratively bloated." But we’re not here to judge that. We’re here to judge Hass’s claim and we find it False.

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Our Sources

Interview with Sen. Mark Hass, April 5, 2011

E-mails from Andy Smith, legislative aide to Sen. Hass, throughout week of April 4, 2011

Interview with Craig Hawkins, spokesman for Confederation of Oregon School Administrators, April 5

Interview with Becca Uherbelau, spokeswoman for Oregon Education Association, April 7, 2011

Interview with Lisa Freiley, an associate director of the Oregon School Boards Association, April 6, 2011

Interview with and e-mails from Crystal Greene, public affairs manager for Oregon Department of Education, April 6, 2011

Interview with Milt Dennison, superintendent of Clackamas Education Service District, April 8, 2011

The Oregonian, "Lawmakers push reforms to regional education agencies and sending more money to classrooms," April 3, 2011

Senate Democrats press release, March 30, 2011

Oregon Department of Education, Statewide Report Card, November 2010

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Sen. Hass says taxpayers could be getting three teachers for the price of one superintendent

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