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Hillsborough school complaint doesn't add up

A commissioner complains of school district salaries. How do they stack up with county government's?

By LETITIA STEIN and BILL VARIAN
Published August 13, 2006


TAMPA - From his seat on the Hillsborough County Commission, Brian Blair declared earlier this summer that the School Board's financial credibility is in shambles.

"People have the right to know that when they spend their dollars that they're being spent efficiently, wisely," Blair said in May. He later requested a list of school district employees earning more than $60,000.

He may want to review the figures for his own house.

Consider:

- The school district has nearly five times as many employees as county government. Yet the county has nearly four times the number of people making $100,000 or more annually.

- About 16 percent of the county's 5,600 employees make $60,000 or more. That compares to nearly 5 percent of the school district's approximately 25,000 staffers. And about half of those well-paid school employees are considered teachers, including one just breaking $100,000.

- The seven county commissioners earn $88,675 annually, with the chairman and vice chairman getting an additional $10,000. They have two assistants each, with five of the longest serving making at least $64,688, in the range of many assistant principals for the school district.

Seven School Board members earn annual salaries of $39,520 for a part-time job. They all share two secretaries, whose combined salaries total $87,235, according to the district.

Reached at home, School Board member Carol Kurdell noted that she and other board members don't have personal offices downtown, much less the staffing of the county.

"It's just incredible what they have over there, and we are the largest employer in the county," Kurdell said. "You make the comparison."

After reviewing the list of school employees, Blair's first comment was to compare the salary of the district's lobbyist with that of the county's lesser paid person with a similar role.

But when told of some of the highlights of a side-by-side look at salaries paid by both governments, Blair immediately dismissed the analysis.

You have to compare like governments, he said.

He noted that he asks similar questions of county government administration. He said his skepticism about school district spending was fueled in part by St. Petersburg Times stories highlighting its questionable land-acquisition practices.

"I've taken the county to task more than I've taken the school district to task, that's for sure," Blair said, noting his aides are among the lowest paid.

Officials for both governments agree: Comparing the salaries of the nation's ninth largest school district to those of one of the state's largest counties is an apples to oranges study. The school district runs 244 schools. From teachers to part-time cafeteria workers, it has about 25,000 permanent employees. The district oversees a $2.6-billion budget.

And the county? It's budget tops $3.5-billion. The roughly 5,600 full-time workers who report to the county administrator include engineers, dog catchers and firefighters.

"It is different," said School Board member Candy Olson. "So why is the county butting into the school district's operations?"

"I'm not going to tell them how to run their operation," she added.

Some other county commissioners were quick to distance themselves from Blair's salary scrutiny.

"Those have not been my issues," said Commissioner Tom Scott. "I think the people trying to raise those sorts of issues were trying to discredit the school district."

Commission Chairman Jim Norman said questioning such numbers is something Blair has done consistently since getting elected two years ago.

Blair's criticism of district finances came during recent public hearings in which the county raised the school impact fees on new homes from $196 to $4,000, a change advocated by the School Board. Blair was on the losing side of the 4-3 vote, along with commissioners Ronda Storms and Norman.

In requesting the salary figures, Blair singled out the district's public information officer, Stephen Hegarty, a former Times reporter on the job for about a year. His situation shows why comparisons between the two governments get tricky.

Hegarty makes $90,857 and supervises about 30 employees charged with communications to the public and internally, including central printing.

"I am paid a generous salary, and I think the only way I can justify it is to work really, really hard," said Hegarty, noting that 12-hour days are normal, as are evening and weekend work for the school system.

His counterpart in the county, Lori Hudson, also on the job for about a year, makes $97,385. But she supervises 50 employees, including the staff that runs the county's 24-hour television station.

"My department is almost twice the size of his," Hudson said. "I just know that there are some key functional areas of my operation that they don't have."

The operation of a school district and county government are as different as night and day, superintendent MaryEllen Elia agreed.

But Blair started this conversation.

"Half of the information doesn't make a full truth," Elia said. "Commissioner Blair says things sometimes that I'm not sure if he has facts to back them up."

Her counterpart, County Administrator Pat Bean, careful not to counter one of her bosses, said she'd want to hear more before comparing the salaries, such as how long similar employees have held the position.

With 30 years in county government, three as administrator, she expressed surprise to learn Elia makes more. Elia became superintendent a year ago, after 19 years with the school district, and has worked in education since 1970.

Elia makes $215,009 in annual salary; Bean makes $201,594.

Bean pointed out that the commission paid for a study last year to determine if county employees are paid too much or too little when compared to similar governments and private sector businesses. The study concluded most county wages were about right.

Blair, true to form, questioned its validity when it was presented to his board. He did so again for this story.

"That was a waste of money," Blair said. "I got elected to ask questions."

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 226-3400. Bill Varian can be reached at 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

[Last modified August 13, 2006, 01:12:27]


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