Out-of-State Think Tank Attacks SMMUSD Salaries

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A highly charged press release issued by an organization called Transparent California appears to suggest that employees of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District are overpaid by as much as 40 percent, according to one Santa Monica newspaper’s interpretation of the data. However, upon closer examination by The Malibu Times, the data provided in the press release is misleading and arguably inaccurate. And, in fact, the ironically named Transparent California is neither based in California nor transparent.

Transparent California is one of the many names used by the tax-exempt Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI), which describes itself as “a free-market think tank that seeks private solutions to public challenges.” While NPRI favors easy access to the salaries of not only school employees, but all public servants, in an interview with the Reno Gazette Journal its executive vice-president refused to provide its own funding sources, stating, “NPRI respects the privacy of our donors, which includes the amount of a donor’s gift.” However, The Conservative Transparency Project, an interactive database that tracks the flow of money among conservative donors, advocacy groups, political committees and candidates, has determined that NPRI’s primary funding source is Donors Capital Fund, described by progressive magazine “Mother Jones” as the “dark-money ATM of the conservative movement,” and its donors also include such conservative think tanks as The Cato Institute, co-founded by the Koch brothers, and other organizations affiliated with the man-made climate change denial movement. NPRI received tax-deductible donations in 2013-14 of $1,880,000 while paying salaries, other compensation and employee benefits of $1,395,000 — roughly 75 percent of its total revenue, including a six-figure salary for its chief legal officer.

It was also noted by a Santa Monica-based news website — based on info provided by Transparent California — that many of the SMMUSD teachers’ salaries for 2015 “far exceed” Santa Monica’s median household income of $74,534. The median household income data is the most recent reported by the U.S. Census for 2014. Median household income means half of households have a higher income and half lower. However, Transparent California’s press release includes employee benefits like health coverage in its definition of “compensation,” which is excluded from the U.S. census data upon which the report relies. The census data includes as “households,” among others, elderly individuals living solely on Social Security, skewing the median figure downward and making it unrepresentative of working households. Additionally, while the data relates to SMMUSD, no mention is made of the Malibu median household income of $130,432, which exceeds the salary of the highest paid teacher in the entire district. 

The initial press release from Transparent California not only did not compare SMMUSD employee salaries to those from similarly situated communities such as Beverly Hills and San Marino, but also did not take into account the cost of living associated with living and working in these high-cost areas. The database provided in the press release listed former SMMUSD Superintendent Sandra Lyons’ total pay and benefits as $284,028.  By way of comparison, the superintendent of Palos Verdes Unified, which has roughly the same enrollment as SMMUSD, was at $309,345, while the superintendents of San Marino Unified and Beverly Hills Unified, which combined have roughly two-thirds the enrollment of SMMUSD, were  $289,196 and  $283,807, respectively.  There are roughly 11,000 students in the SMMUSD, 11,500 in Palos Verdes, 4,200 in Beverly Hills and 3,200 in San Marino.

In addition, Transparent California calls out the superintendent of the Ontario-Montclair School District with total pay and benefits of $516,573 in a community where the median household income is only $54,156, far exceeding SMMUSD’s highest paid employee known to date, Sandra Lyons, who recently left SMMUSD to work for the Palm Springs School District. Lyons was replaced by Dr. Ben Drati.

Looking at the data provided by Transparent California, the highest paid teacher in the SMMUSD had total pay of $124,584 in 2015, while starting salaries for new hire teachers are well below $50,000.  Data did not include details on teacher seniority or education level. Other support positions in the district pay far less.

In response to questions raised by The Malibu Times about attacks on district spending, spokesperson Gail Pinsker said she was not aware of spending complaints in the past, but said the district has resources and uses them for the betterment of students.

“As you may be aware, we do have significantly higher funding in our district than some of our peers, in that we have a very generous support from the City of Santa Monica residents, as well as the City of Malibu residents, and through bonds and parcel taxes,” Pinsker said. “We have more revenue than some of our peers, and so we’re able to provide additional programs for our students and stay competitive with salaries as well.” Pinkser said the “high performing” district has been supported “overwhelmingly” by the community.