DIGGING DEEPER: Public $chool Payroll

As one of the largest school systems in the state, Fort Wayne Community Schools faces challenges that include managing an annual budget that is closing in on $300 million.

ABC21 went Digging Deeper to examine how much of that money is spent to pay administrators, how much for teachers — and how it all compares to peer districts across Indiana.

We first met Fort Wayne elementary school teacher Lisa Hamblin at a local teacher’s supply store.

“I definitely spend close to a thousand dollars, if not more, throughout the school year on supplies,” Hamblin told us.

Out of that stack of cash, Hamblin can only write off $250 on her taxes. That’s how much she spends within the first month of school.

“It can be hard, at the beginning of the school year especially, when a large chunk of my money is spent getting my classroom ready,” Hamblin said.

It’s a process that includes buying snacks that Hamblin keeps handy for students who might otherwise go hungry.

“I don’t know a teacher that doesn’t spend any money out of their pocket for their classroom,” Hamblin said. “I don’t.”

Many teachers can relate, especially at FWCS where teacher salaries were frozen for several years earlier in this decade. But in that same period the number of administrators making more than $100,000 doubled — twice.

In a city where the average household income is $43,994, last year, 56 administrators took home more than $100,000. Thirteen administrators made more than Governor Eric Holcomb. Six made more than Mayor Tom Henry, the highest paid mayor in the state at $128,593.

We shared what we found with the president of the teacher’s union for the district, Julie Hyndman.

She calls it concerning, because she says it’s money that could be used to better pay teachers and to hire more teachers and help reduce class sizes.

"We are probably a little top-heavy," Hyndman said.

 Seeking someone to address those concerns, ABC21 requested interviews with the FWCS superintendent, Dr. Wendy Robinson.

Twice, a district spokeswoman denied our requests through e-mail, and once over the phone, saying, “it just seems like you want to ask us why so many people make so much money. I don’t see what value I can add by answering that question.”

We attempted to speak with the superintendent after a school board meeting last month, an effort that met with similar results.

FULL SCRIPT: Interaction with Dr. Wendy Robinson

After Superintendent Robinson walked away from our camera, we requested an interview with school board president Julie Hollingsworth. She turned down our request, without explanation.

However, school board member Glenna Jehl, who has been critical of the superintendent on other matters, did speak with us.

“If you have a policy that you’re not willing to discuss, then I think that flies in the face of being open, transparent and accountable,” Jehl said.

We asked her how to justify the numbers to taxpayers and teachers.

“Well, I was, quite frankly, I was kind of surprised that we had that many officials in the administration that were being that well-paid,” Jehl said.

“It begs the question,” Jehl said, “are we spending our dollars in the best way possible?”

After our on-camera interaction, ABC21 again requested an interview with the superintendent – or other FWCS representative. More than three weeks later Stockman e-mailed us a written response to our questions.

In that e-mail, Stockman cites a state report in 2016 that found FWCS spent 63.6 percent of its budget “directly” in “the classroom” – a figure better than the state average.

RELATED: Question and Answer with Fort Wayne Community Schools

ABC21 discovered the state includes the cost of principals, assistant principals and some other administrators when calculating “dollars in the classroom.” Central office administrators like the superintendent are not counted toward the "in the classroom" figure.

"I think it would be natural for a teacher to look at that and say, ‘wow’, " said Steve Brace, the local director for the Indiana State Teachers Union.

But he added: "Administrators are expected to make more than teachers."

It’s how much more that Brace says can be discouraging for educators in the classroom.

“Teachers are working harder than they’ve ever worked before,” Brace said. “They’re putting in more hours, there’s a lot more stress, but if you’re a newer teacher, in particular, you’re struggling.”

In 2017, FWCS employed 2,060 teachers. Of that number, 77 percent worked full-time. Of those full-time teachers, more than half make roughly the base salary, which starts at $41,650 and tops out at $68,050 for teachers who go back to school for a Master’s degree.

“Teachers are in the trenches,” Brace said. “They’re doing the grind, the daily work.”

There are opportunities to exceed base earnings through coaching, teaching summer school and other duties.

“The disparity between the administrative salaries and the teacher salaries, it’s a concern," Brace said. “It’s a concern everywhere and I think particularly in an urban area like Fort Wayne."

In its e-mail, the district writes: “There is not a disparity as the contract with teachers is mutually agreed upon. There is a difference in pay as the amount of responsibility, level of education and number of days worked increases.”

The district goes on to say: "Without a higher salary, there is little incentive for a highly skilled teacher to move from the classroom into an administrative position."

Because FWCS is one of the largest school districts in the state, ABC21 compared its figures to those of four like-sized districts.

Proportionally, the only district significantly more top-heavy than FWCS is Hamilton Southeastern, a district with slightly fewer students and staff.

But unlike Fort Wayne Community Schools, some of Hamilton Southeastern’s 33 employees making six figures in earnings are teachers. Two of the Top 10 earners in 2017 at Hamilton Southeastern are teachers; none of the Top 80 at FWCS.

DATABASE: 2017 earnings of teachers, administrators and other employees at school systems across Indiana

And the average household income in Hamilton County is more than $84,000 annually — nearly double the average income in Fort Wayne.

In fact, Hamilton Southeastern is one of the wealthiest public-school districts in the state. Even so, more administrators make more money at Fort Wayne Community Schools.

“The numbers just, just require us to at least question what’s going on,” Jehl said. “You have to understand the board, as a whole, defaults to the administration.”

Jehl says the only salary set by the Board is the superintendent’s. Others, like those of principals, Jehl says, are set by the administration.

Negotiations with the teacher and labor unions are also led by the Central Office, with contracts approved by the Board.

This is something this school board member says she is open to changing after seeing the numbers we uncovered by Digging Deeper.

“We as a board probably should have a little more oversight,” Jehl said.

Ron Richmond represents the labor union for public sector employees in Indiana and Kentucky. 120 FWCS workers belong to that union including teachers’ aides, bus monitors and cafeteria staff.

To prepare for contract negotiations, Richmond says the union has done its own homework on the district’s payroll.

“We compared our people to the people we were dealing with there at the table, and quite often when they say ‘we can’t do even more than a one percent raise for you all,’ we would find that some of them had six, seven, 13 and a couple individuals were even above 50 percent raises on a regular basis,” Richmond said.

This after Richmond says FWCS administrators converted some full-time positions to part-time, meaning those who held those jobs lost health insurance and often took up side jobs to make ends meet.

“It’s unfair,” Richmond said. “It’s something especially when we’re expecting transparency out of this organization. We’re not getting a straight story.”

The labor union begins contract negotiations next month. But the teachers union won’t renegotiate their wages until 2019.

So, like many of her peers, Hamblin will keep saving, shopping and spending the salary she has.

“I don’t think that it is in a teacher’s heart to allow a student to not have what they need,” Hamblin said.

Already, ABC21 is getting reaction to this Digging Deeper investigation. Fort Wayne City Councilman Jason Arp says he wasn’t surprised to learn 56 FWCS district administrators made more than $100,000.

“Some education researchers in Indianapolis pointed this out to me two years ago,” Arp said. “They said, ‘did you know Fort Wayne Community Schools is one of the most top-heavy administrations in the state?’”

In 2016, Councilman Arp drafted a proposal to cap business property taxes, a proposal swiftly met by rebuke from school officials who claimed the tax cap would strain their already dwindling budget.

Arp insists his proposal would not have impacted school budgets. Nonetheless, it never passed the City Council.

As the tax council for Allen County, Council members must balance things between police, fire, roads and schools. A balancing act Arp says is worth revisiting after our “public school payroll” report.

“We need to kind of think about, you know, if we’re not getting a good return because of a top-heavy education system," Arp said.

We asked him if he thought the community wasn’t getting a good return.

“I can say that Fort Wayne Community Schools has continued to lose students,” Arp said, “And um, I haven’t heard of any Realtors that are being asked, ‘hey, go show me some places where you know it’s in Fort Wayne Community Schools.’”

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