The ongoing legal disputes pitting the Newport-Mesa Unified School District against some former administrators have prompted concerns regarding Supt. Fred Navarro's leadership, the role of the school board and whether there have been instances when officials failed to use proper procedures and accounting with salary reports to the state.
But these lawsuits also point us to another question worthy of attention:
Are the generous compensation packages given to NMUSD's top administrators appropriate and justified?
It's often said that no one goes into teaching to get rich. While teacher salaries can vary considerably from district to district and according to other factors, such as length of service, that's a hard statement to argue with.
Not so much when it comes to some local administrators.
Let's examine the data. The median annual salary for superintendents nationwide is $147,000. In California, such salaries typically range from $97,000 to about $225,000, with a few rare exceptions.
Now consider the pay given to NMUSD's top two officials, Supt. Navarro and Deputy Supt. and Chief Business Official Paul Reed, who earned $260,325 and $244,475, respectively, in base pay in 2014.
Now also consider the extra amounts that each official received when all forms of compensation, including benefits and other pay, are factored in. According to the think tank Transparent California, which maintains a comprehensive database of public sector compensation, Navarro's total 2014 compensation amounted to $318,394, and Reed's came in at $349,788.
By contrast, Irvine Unified's superintendent had $296,671 in total compensation in the same time period, it found.
Robert Fellner, Transparent California's research director, told me that a few points stood out when he compared NMUSD to Orange County's nine other largest school districts. The first is that Newport-Mesa's top earner, Reed, though not the superintendent, receives total compensation roughly 16% higher than the average for the superintendents at the other districts that Fellner examined.
Moreover, he said, NMUSD's assistant superintendents made about 21% more than the average for comparable positions at the other districts.
Now, thanks to the legal action brought against Newport-Mesa by its former human resources director, John Caldecott, we have yet another wrinkle to factor in to our thinking about compensation.
Caldecott was fired about a year ago after he sued, alleging a hostile workplace and accusing the district of filing inaccurate salary reports to the state. He won a court ruling in December ordering the release of related documents.
Then, last month, Caldecott went public with what he says are previously undisclosed documents showing how much money Reed has received in additional payments, which the school board authorized to be put into a separate retirement account and are not factored into the total compensation reported to the state retirement fund.
The Daily Pilot previously reported that $273,591 has been paid into this account over several years, but Caldecott puts the number higher, at about $340,000. The district has said these extra payments were used to induce Reed to delay his retirement.
"Experienced professionals with strong business and education proficiencies, like Paul Reed, are difficult to come by," board President Dana Black recently told the Pilot. "We value his knowledge, expertise and success in ensuring our continued fiscally responsible approach to providing a world-class education for our students."
OK, point taken. Reed did steer NMUSD through the Great Recession and the firing of controversial former superintendent Jeffrey Hubbard. I was among those who praised his financial stewardship at a time when many districts throughout the state were rendered virtually insolvent.
Fellner said there's some validity to the contention that an incentive was needed to get Reed to postpone retirement. Because of the way the pension system is structured, he said, Reed "would have received a pension benefit so rich, it would functionally be considered a raise to retire."
Yet Caldecott said the additional payments trouble him because the amounts were not previously made public, which he suspects was because "this is a way to keep it hidden."
(On a side note, Caldecott, in addition to his civil suit, has filed a sworn statement with the Costa Mesa Police Department alleging that he suffered criminal retaliation as a whistleblower. He is awaiting a decision on whether charges will be filed.)
As for Navarro's pay, one could argue that his handsome compensation is deserved. The role of superintendent has become increasingly politicized, leading to increased turnover statewide. These executives have buck-stops-here responsibility for budgets, resource allocation, government relations, and academic priorities. Navarro is both the public face and top internal decision-maker of a district with complicated challenges and extreme demographic diversity. It's a big job.
But big enough to warrant such rich pay? When pondering that question, keep in mind that every dollar spent on administrative compensation is money that doesn't go to classrooms, some of which remain overcrowded years after the last recession ended.
Caldecott sees the hefty compensation packages as part of a pattern of top district officials looking after themselves, with help from a too-obliging school board. "Plenty of people are qualified to do Paul's job. Fred too," he said. "These are some of the best jobs in the state. All the money does is keep the club intact."
Justified or not, the considerable pay given to NMUSD's upper echelon merits scrutiny as the legal drama at the district continues to unfold.
PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.