It was interesting to read an update sent out to all Jefferson County Schools employees on Sept. 14 that warned that the Spirit of Jefferson had requested the salary information of every single employee of the Jefferson County Schools System and would soon publish them.
The only problem is, we didn’t. And our information requests were crystal clear that we didn’t.
We only asked for the information regarding the 38 administrative employees who received discretionary raises due to the passage of a 325-page personnel document that the school board approved on June 22.
Our goal as a news-gathering organization has only been one thing - and that’s transparency.
We don’t have views about what these school officials are paid — or should be paid — or the timing of the raises. We’ll leave that for others to judge and comment on, most particularly our readers.
However, we have given a voice to some who do have those concerns.But make no mistake, our journey back in July began with one goal in mind and that was to find out the size and scope of these raises that were passed in June.
Any journalist worth his or her salt would instantly be drawn to such a story. The mostly sizeable raises, which were only slightly referenced in a confusing chart on page 45 of a 325-page document, were passed by our school board with no discussion. The document was discussed itself, but no one spoke of these raises, which in some cases are more than 20 percent. The total raise amount for the group has surpassed $300,000.
We’ve tried to exercise restraint along the way. We were ready to publish the complete list of the employees who received raises back on Aug. 5, and shortly before deadline we found out that the raises included a small amount of money from the state legislature given to all school employees as a cost-of-living increase.
As a result, we held off and requested more information.
Three weeks later, we finally received an answer to our follow-up request and it included a list of incomplete information and a formula where we could figure out which parts of the raises came from local money and state money ourselves.
By the way, the formula was anything but simple.
Obtaining the additional information we needed to calculate all of the raises required us to file a series of information requests, and after each request school officials trickled out information in bits and pieces and in various changing formats.
The lack of complete information we’re guessing was human error. We’re trying to give people the benefit of the doubt here. And the decision to have us calculate information ourselves? That followed the law to the letter, but not the spirit of the law. In our minds, it seriously clouded any efforts aimed at answering the question of how much of these raises were paid for with local funding.
Just as disappointing, to this day school board members have not explained their votes to unanimously approve the raises during an open public meeting. School board members Kathy Skinner and Laurie Ogden commented to the Spirit after the raises were discovered. School board members Mark Osbourn and Gary Kable have remained silent on the issue, so has former school board member Wendy Whitehair-Lochner who voted for the raises before Donna Joy was elected in June to serve in her place.
Last week, I received an email that the Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson had a letter to the editor that she wished to submit. Instead of putting it in with the other letters, I gave Superintendent Gibson’s comments prime real estate on our opinion page to state whatever thoughts she had on the matter. She made points about why the raises were well-founded and why Jefferson County taxpayers should need to pay these people more.
That’s all fine and well. Maybe the raises are needed and maybe they aren’t. Such questions were never the point of our inquiry to begin with.
However, Gibson’s points would have made for a more credible public argument prior to approving the raises. It’s unfortunate that such an opportunity was missed.
Nonetheless, 13 weeks after the fact, we finally have the answers we originally sought and we are running the final list of salaries in today’s issue to give our readers answers that should have been provided before these raises were ever passed in the first place.
County taxpayers, including classroom teachers and school employees, have a right to know to judge for themselves. And the school board has a duty to be open, forthcoming and honest in telling about those raises.