By Brad Hughes
KSBA Member Support/Communications Services Director
It’s a lesson learned early, whether you’re a public official, a journalist, a corporate executive or a communications professional: if there’s an announcement to be made, do it yourself. Tell your story your way. Don’t leave it to others to cherry pick facts. That’s probably going to happen anyway, whether by reporters, employees, critics, rumormongers or even by people who are on your side.
Kentucky superintendents are facing an announcement sometime in the next 10-12 weeks: a public dissection of the details of their employment contracts. Superintendent salaries have been public for years, accessible on the Kentucky Department of Education website. Now, Education Commissioner Terry Holliday intends to go further – who gets what beyond the regular paycheck. Vehicle use. Cell phones. Insurance. Memberships. Leave time. And, without a doubt, some unusual benefits negotiated and approved by local boards.
Holliday’s push comes after three of four district reviews by State Auditor Adam Edelen generated, among other things, questions about compensation and benefits for now ex-superintendents. So, the commissioner intends to create a Web-based resource so the public can see – and compare – pay and benefits for district chief administrators. He’s promised to post his salary and benefits there as well.
Publicly, superintendents quoted in news reports have been supportive. Privately, a number of district CEOs aren’t happy, many believing that Holliday has devoted too much attention to the abuses of a few and too little to his avowed belief that the overwhelming majority of superintendents are professionals working for the best education for their students and working conditions for staff.
The bottom line is that this Transparency Train has left the station. The next whistle-stop will be a public announcement of the online database’s availability sometime in July.
But superintendents can beat the train to the station.
Go public now
As noted earlier, superintendent contracts already are public documents, so where’s the downside of posting them on the district’s own website now?
• Scan the contract into an easy-to-read PDF (Portable Document Format) file. Posting a Word document is OK if you’re confident no one would copy and distribute an altered version.
• Write a summary of key points about compensation and benefits. This isn’t a defense, but rather a section highlighting the details anyone looking into the document could find on his or her own.
• Create an icon entitled something like “2013-14 Superintendent’s Contract,” post it on the home page (it doesn’t need to be a huge headline – just visible), and link to the document.
• Finally, tell people that they’ve done it. This can come in the superintendent’s report at a board meeting, a staff email or a regular district newsletter, electronic or printed.
There’s no need to issue a news release. But if a superintendent feels there may be a news story at any point – as has already happened in a couple of districts – they should consider sitting down with local reporters. This is especially true if there are any special benefits that bear some explanation. Too often, the simple black-and-white of a contract without any enlightenment can result in an, “I don’t think that’s right” as opposed to an, “Oh, I didn’t understand it that way.”
Of course, this omits the remaining element of the KDE database – comparisons among contracts. But there are some options there as well.
My sense of the superintendency is that of colleagues who more often collaborate than compete. That’s evident when I attend meetings of regional educational cooperatives. So I’ll go out on a limb here and assume that such colleagues would share what’s going public anyway in a couple of months.
Gather key points by comparing contracts from either neighboring districts or like-sized districts based on student enrollment, total budget, staff numbers, etc. Use of this data doesn’t have to name names. Just spell out how the districts were chosen for the comparison.
The Last Word
Reactions to the commissioner’s superintendent contract database are likely to range from nothing or “ho hum” at one end of the spectrum to news coverage and potentially some criticism at the other end. And if some superintendents’ benefits draw questions like those in the state auditor’s reports, it’s possible that Kentucky superintendents in general could get an uncomplimentary coat of image paint applied with a broad brush.
The Transparency Train is barreling down the track. Superintendents can wait and see if it passes them by, stops for them to get on board, or runs right over them. But they have an alternative.
And that’s a message worth getting out.