Berkeley teachers, facing heavy layoffs, are raising questions about hefty executive salaries and an apparent conflict of interest in upper-level contract negotiations at the Berkeley Unified School District.
District administrators counter that they are working 14-hour days and deserve salaries that top out at $185,000 per year for Superintendent Michele Lawrence and $153,000 per year for three associate superintendents.
They add that the alleged conflict of interest, which involves Associate Superintendent of Human Resources David Gomez negotiating the framework for his own wage hike, was not a conflict and has been revised anyhow.
“I think when people are angry and frustrated and hurting from the loss of such good people, it becomes easier to throw stones at the administration,” said Lawrence.
But Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Barry Fike said the average person would “smell a rat” in the Gomez contract deal. He added that the district, facing a $4 million to $8 million deficit next year, has not cut enough from the central office — which spends significantly more per pupil on upper management than most districts in the county, according to the most recent state data available.
Berkeley spends $48 per student on superintendent and associate superintendent salaries, compared to $14 in Oakland, $26 in Alameda City and $32 in Dublin, according to Department of Education data from 2000-2001. The statewide average is $23 per pupil.
“I think that I earn a good salary, but I do believe it was necessary to recruit a superintendent to take over Berkeley, given all the troubles,” said Lawrence, referring to the dysfunctional accounting system and looming deficits that hung over the district when she took charge last year.
Lawrence, on top of her $185,000 salary, received an interest-free $300,000 loan to help purchase a home.
Dennis Myers, assistant executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, said loans and housing allowances for superintendents are becoming more and more prevalent, particularly in areas of the state with a high cost of living.
“Fifteen years ago, people would raise their eyebrows,” he said. “But now nobody is surprised.”
Myers added that superintendents, who manage large transportation, food service, custodial and educational systems, receive far less in compensation than corporate CEOs.
Still, with class sizes on the rise and heavy layoffs hitting teachers and custodians, some find the district’s administrative salaries excessive.
“We cannot continue to support a top-heavy, overpaid administrative staff while they slash from the bottom,” said Stephanie Allan, a union official with Local 39, which represents bus drivers, security guards and food service workers.
District officials say they made heavy cuts to the central administration last year and cannot chop any more. According to district figures released last week, Berkeley Unified eliminated 16 positions, created six new jobs and upgraded seven more during a major reorganization effort designed to revamp a struggling central office while cutting costs.
The move, according to district figures, saved the district about $240,000. Union leaders, who have claimed there was a $400,000 increase in administrative expenditures, declined to comment, saying the district had not yet provided them with the new figures.
But union officials continued to raise concerns about the Gomez pact.
As the district’s top human resources official, Gomez is responsible for negotiating contracts with all the district’s unions, including the Union of Berkeley Administrators (UBA), which represents 37 principals, assistant principals and other managers.
Gomez is not a member of UBA. But three years ago, former Superintendent Jack McLaughlin tied raises for Gomez and Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Christine Lim to the annual UBA pay hikes.
Lawrence said McLaughlin made the move to “protect his people,” ensuring that Gomez and Lim would get consistent raises under a new superintendent.
But McLaughlin, now superintendent of public instruction for the state of Nevada, denies the allegation. He said he simply wanted to ensure that all administrators were treated equally.
“It was meant to keep the integrity of the whole management side together,” he said.
Experts and officials from other districts said school systems often attempt to give top-level administrators raises on par with those of other district employees. But they said they had never heard of contracts that formally tie pay hikes for administrators to those of another, specific union.
In fact, several officials said, districts often use their discretion on executive salaries to restrict pay hikes for top managers in tough economic times, even as teachers and other district employees get raises mandated by their contracts.
Gomez negotiated the most recent, three-year UBA contract in 1999. The contract included a mathematical formula that tied annual raises for union members — and ultimately himself — to those of administrators in 30 other similar districts.
Gomez said there was no conflict of interest because he did not set his annual pay hike. Instead, the mathematical formula, which yielded a 7 percent pay hike last year, was in control.
“They’re trying to show that there was foul play,” said Gomez. “There wasn’t.”
Still, skeptics say the arrangement raises red flags.
“It’s pretty hard for a teacher to take, considering that their salary is a lot larger than ours,” said fifth-grade teacher Jennifer Landaeta, one of 220 Berkeley educators to receive a pink slip in March.
Lawrence insists there was nothing underhanded in Gomez’s negotiations. But she said the appearance of a conflict of interest, and the mistrust it might create, led her to change the associate superintendents’ contracts last year, separating their pay from that of UBA members.