DMN Story on DISD Salaries Suffers From Bad Case of Overreach

This story made me crazy


SWEET MOTHER OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, does this story make me crazy. No need to read it, because I’m going to reprint it all below, with comments. Let’s get to it.

HEADLINE: Record number of Dallas ISD administrators make more than $100,000, analysis shows

Analysis! Oooh, analysis, analytics, analytical — I love all those words. And, my stars, $100,000? In American dollars? Nothing arbitrary about that figure. That’s the devil’s number! Let’s get to the story proper:

Two years after Superintendent Mike Miles admitted he paid administrators too much money, a record number of top officials in Dallas ISD are making more than $100,000 annually.

Okay, sure. Go on.

An analysis by The Dallas Morning News found that 175 administrators had six-figure salaries — up from 130 in Miles’ first year in the district and 111 the year before that.

Wait, 175? Are we sure that’s right? I’m supposed to be outraged, right? Except, DeKalb ISD in Georgia (part of Atlanta) has not quite 100k students, and in 2008-09, it paid 223 administrators $100k or more. Other nearby districts there did the same: Fulton County schools (219), Gwinnett County (214), Atlanta (181). In the school district in Louisville, Kentucky, there are currently 369 administrators making more than $100k a year. In Philadelphia, 395 employees on the district payrolls make more than $100k. In Albany Capital Region, 817 people earn six-figure salaries. (Granted, this comprises dozens of districts that make up the counties in and around Albany, so there will be more administrators, but the entire region represents a total of far fewer than DISD’s 160k kids.) So, okay, DISD has more $100k salaried employees than it used to. But it also has far fewer than many other smaller districts. Let’s continue:

In addition, Miles awarded his high-ranking deputies with raises this summer that exceed the 3 percent increase teachers received. Excluding Miles, the 25 highest-paid employees got an average salary hike of 14 percent.

Okay. So Miles rewards those close to him. Boo, I guess.

 The spike in top administrative pay has widened the gap between central office employees and classroom teachers. The average teacher pay this year is $52,806, which, even with the 3 percent pay raise, is still lower than it was four years ago.

This is an extremely interesting point, one that is far more complicated than presented here and that needs its own post. I’ll try to get to it next week, because I need to feel like I’m accurately reflecting all sides, but basically there is a serious problem in the sense that the best teachers still don’t feel like they’re being treated properly. Pay is just one reflection of this. I would argue this is a profession problem, not a DISD problem, but in any case this reality breeds the Populism 101 sentiment that stokes stories like this: “Why are the fat cats making money while I’m doing the hard work and being crapped on?” Like I said, lots to this notion, worth its own post. I’ll try to get to it soon.

“We want our principals and executive directors to have the most competitive salaries in North Texas. We are moving in the same direction for teachers,” Miles said in a statement. “We have a lot of work to do as a school district, and I have very high expectations for every member of our staff, particularly those in leadership roles. They routinely work long hours and are on call 24 hours a day.”

Dallas ISD spokesman Jon Dahlander said that the 3 percent raise for all employees and the new principal evaluation plan were responsible for more people making $100,000.

All very true. That said, if the central point of this story was just that Miles overpays people, it would be accurate. It’s his strategy to get the best people, and he hates haggling over salary, so he throws money at ’em. Personally, I totally get this. Why in the world would someone come here to be raked over the coals by stories like this if Miles didn’t overpay? Also, important point: We talk all the time about controlling for poverty when evaluating teachers and districts. I submit that you have to do the same when looking at executive pay. With 160k kids, 90 percent of whom are in poverty, this job is tougher than most.

THAT said, you can absolutely criticize that approach given teacher concerns and an environment for teachers that has been recently described to me as “toxic.” I get that. It’s absolutely fair to do so. In fact, some board members have privately criticized Miles for overpaying because of the message it sends and simply because they feel they have a fiduciary responsibility to pay the least amount possible when hiring someone. (A principle that I would suggest is a slippery slope, especially for teachers.) Again, that’s not what we’re going to end with here. Let’s see what’s next.

Another hallmark of Miles’ tenure in Dallas ISD has been his reliance on young, inexperienced employees in top administrative jobs. Six DISD employees age 30 or younger make more than $100,000; no one that age made that much under former Superintendent Michael Hinojosa.

Although Miles has pledged to weed out employees who landed jobs through patronage and personal connections, the analysis by The News found that more than two dozen new hires share similar backgrounds, including working for Teach for America and Dallas education reform groups Commit and The Teaching Trust. Those groups have supported Miles’ efforts in Dallas ISD.

This is when the story really goes off the rails. Several things to unpack here:

“Experience” in what way? Meaning they haven’t been a school bureaucrat for four decades? Mark Lamster, the DMN’s architecture critic, had zero experience at a daily newspaper when he was hired last April. He was a brilliant hire. Maybe hiring people is more complicated than this story make it seem? Possibly? (I’ll get into specific bona fides of the people this story unfairly slags later in this post.)

Now, about that point that six DISD employees under the age of 31 (totally not an arbitrary number!) make over $100k (not arbitrary!). And the following point that zero did so under Hinojosa. And the following point that Miles has hired from Teach for America, Commit, and Teaching Trust — which is then somehow grouped together as showing preferential treatment for those who favor his reforms.

Right. Okay. [Deeeep breath.]

Superintendent Hinojosa left the district to head to Georgia in June 2011. (Fun fact: The district he went to had a higher 100k-to-student ratio than DISD does. But we’ll ignore that.) TFA arrived in Dallas in 2009. After six months of training, its grads teach for two years before deciding what path to take. (Dallas has the highest rate of TFA grads who stay in education, btw: 70 percent.) So those folks would not be ready to even apply for admin jobs until 2011. (Sure, some of the folks, like HR head Carmen Darville, came from other TFA programs. Just bear with me.) Teaching Trust was co-founded in 2010 by Rosemary Perlmeter, who is, for my money, the most amazing education expert in North Texas. (I’ve spent hours talking with her about what she does, and I’ve spent hours talking to Alex Hales, who runs TFA in Dallas. Because that’s what I do, even though this gig is part-time.) TT’s leadership support and training programs for teachers wouldn’t have produced anyone ready for administrative jobs (or employees ready to apply for those jobs) for at least a year. And Commit, the data-driven nonprofit that tries to help all Dallas County schools, wasn’t founded until 2012. So, yes, this amazing pipeline of talent has been set up in Dallas, and instead of thanking Miles for using it to get talented, passionate, well-trained people into the administration, the DMN is going to say this is a patronage/personal friendship system? Really? Patronage, Mr. Haag? Okay. I guess its good business to ignore a talent pipeline that puts in place people who are materially better than their predecessors. If that’s cronyism, let’s hear it for cronyism.

Look, those organizations are doing the impossible: Convincing young, smart, passionate people to commit themselves to turning around large urban school districts. Why is that so hard? For one reason, as we’ll see when we get to the disgusting slagging of DISD’s early ed chief, these folks are taking pay cuts from what they’d be worth in the private sector. But also because part of the deal is clearly that your name will be dragged through the mud on the front page of the paper in barely comprehensible smear jobs like this one.

Also: so young people are inherently bad? Is that what we’re saying? Because school board president Miguel Solis was 27 when elected by the people of his district. But that’s bad, right? He clearly can’t do the job, right? Is that because he’s young, or because he’s a TFA grad? Just triple checking. They’re bad because they aren’t putting plans in place to improve outcomes for kids, right? We’re sure of that, even though several of the folks you name-checked are just now developing plans that won’t be measurable for two to three years. I’m sure you asked, though. That’s what’s important.

Unlike salaries for teachers and principals, pay for administrators isn’t confined to what evaluation plans dictate. For Miles’ top staff, raises appear to be handed out at will.

“AT WILL!” Like, free will? What the hell is this country coming to?

The top administrators who report to Miles received some of the largest pay increases in the district.

When operations chief Wanda Paul wanted a raise, she asked for it in an April email exchange with Miles that started with her requesting a day off. After he approved the vacation, she responded: “I also wanted to also discuss my compensation when you have an opportunity. I am $42k below the previous COO. I would respectfully request that you adjust my compensation to reflect a more equitable outcome.”

Her predecessor, Kevin Smelker, whom Miles brought from his former Colorado district, made $220,000. Paul got her wish and now makes $197,760. It is an 11 percent increase from her previous pay of $178,000.

So, a female, doing the same job, was making $42k less than the man who previously held that job. She asked for a raise. She is now making $22+k less. The nerve of her. She should have taken the advice of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and just stayed quiet and expected raises to come, like good girls are supposed to.

After Paul’s salary request, Miles asked human resources to review top administrator pay in DISD and similar districts elsewhere. The results showed that every member in Miles’ cabinet already made above the market average, according to documents obtained by The News. The peer group included Houston ISD, Chicago Public Schools, Arlington ISD, Austin ISD, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD and Northside ISD in San Antonio.

The district’s report in April found that in Houston, which has 50,000 more students, the chief financial officer made $206,000, compared with $210,000 in DISD. It also showed that DISD’s chiefs of human resources and academics made more than their peers in Houston. Pay for the administrators over operations and technology were below Houston’s salaries.

As I said, if the story stuck to showing that Miles pays more than the going rate, I’d have only nit-picky problems with it. (Like pointing out that the CFO has saved the district millions leading up to its upcoming TRE request, has instituted widely praised accountability practices to root out corruption in purchasing, and, as Haag points out, made only $4k more than the person in Houston.) Also, let’s note that this shows we have on person making $4k more, two making more than Houston counterparts, and two making less. Front-page news!

Yet the six cabinet members who report to Miles received an average pay increase in recent months of 7.7 percent, according to the analysis by The News.

Some large pay increases went to administrators who received promotions. The new principal evaluation also pushed 14 principals into six-figure salaries this year. But some DISD administrators stayed in the same position. Miles, whose pay is set by the school board, makes $300,000 and hasn’t received a raise.

Deputy superintendent Ann Smisko, who expanded her job this year, got an 11 percent bump to $226,600. Personnel chief Carmen Darville, who hasn’t taken on additional duties, received a 12 percent increase — and now makes $190,550.

I like that: “expanded her job this year.” She’s basically in charge of running everything important day-to-day. If you watch board briefings or meetings, she’s the one answerable for anything concerning academic programs, anything that doesn’t fall under CFO Jim Terry. Cute way to say that. And Darville, well, Darville runs HR now. You need to know that two departments in DISD, the HR department and the Alternative Certification programs, were completely, utterly broken. DISD used to hire 80 percent of its new teachers after June 15, when the best teachers have already been gobbled up by other districts and are under contract. The Alt Cert program was graded F by the National Council on Teacher Quality just this year. Both needed new leadership. With that knowledge, understand that high-quality HR directors can work in any industry. An HR director overseeing a 20,000 employee base with $1.7 billion in annual revenues would easily command a quarter mil. The DMN, though, would rather have someone in place with “experience,” like the HR director before Miles came onboard, the one who was a promoted high school principal. Ridiculous.

One of Miles’ top confidantes, Paula Blackmon, received a $24,880 increase to $164,800 after she took over two additional departments this year. Blackmon joined Miles’ inner circle in August 2013 after serving as Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings’ chief of staff. Miles has turned to Blackmon for advice on how his initiatives will resonate with the public. She also spent last school year winning community support for DISD’s teacher performance-pay plan.

Dahlander said Blackmon received a pay raise because she increased her responsibilities and now oversees volunteer services and community engagement.

Another aide to Miles, assistant superintendent Karon Cofield, also received a hefty pay raise. Cofield, who followed Miles to Dallas from the same Colorado district, received a 19 percent salary increase to $173,040. She runs a key program that prepares aspiring principals for campus leadership roles. Of the 105 fellows in the program the last two years, 26 have gone on to principal jobs in DISD.

I’ve known Paula Blackmon since she worked as Mayor Rawlings’ chief of staff. She’s worth every penny. She’s tireless, smart, and only cares about making the district better. She’s sharp enough politically to navigate the bear traps laid by destructive board members and the media. She doesn’t need my help defending her. I don’t know Cofield.

Miles spent his first two years in Dallas ISD crafting precise formulas for paying principals and teachers. Principals, starting this year, are paid based on performance. Teachers work under a similar system, which will tie their pay next year with student academic scores and their own performance.

Miles acknowledged two years ago that he set pay for his cabinet members without consulting salaries in other districts. He said, in the future, he would conduct an analysis when setting salaries and better communicate why administrators deserved them.
His concession came after he took heat for paying then-communications chief Jennifer Sprague $185,000 — a 113 percent hike from her previous job in Miles’ Colorado district. Sprague, who made more than the White House press secretary, left DISD after seven months on the job.

Emails obtained by The News show that some employee salaries still seem to be set haphazardly. When a Dallas ISD elementary school principal was promoted to a middle school principal job in May, two human resources administrators decided on his new salary in an email exchange.

“I am recommending $99,000. Tonya do you agree?” human resources chief Darville wrote to executive director Tonya Sadler Grayson.

Grayson responded, “I agree — approximately 15%,” saying that the principal was going to a revamped middle school. That principal’s salary was adjusted to $104,000 this school year when the compensation component of the principal evaluation went into effect.

I honestly don’t know what the point of this section is. I guess it’s “HR people discuss raises.” Sprague was a terrible hire, everyone admits, but it’s worth noting that the person who had the same position in Houston made that exact same salary.

Miles has increasingly hired younger administrators, many of whom share similar experiences with education reform groups. Some also have nontraditional backgrounds, as he does.

Miles started his education career after working about two decades in the Army and the U.S. State Department. When he recently looked for a new chief to oversee school choice in DISD, Miles picked Mike Koprowski, 30, a former Air Force intelligence officer. Koprowski, who makes $165,000, was most recently a fellow with the The Broad Center, an education improvement group where Miles also trained as a superintendent.

Koprowski is among six DISD employees who are 30 or younger and make at least $100,000. Several of them, including 29-year-old deputy chief of staff Justin Coppedge, trained through Teach For America.

Coppedge, who makes $133,900, went to Dallas ISD last year to be Miles’ special assistant. He joined from software company Symphonic Source, where school board president Miguel Solis, the previous special assistant to Miles, now works. The company’s owner, Ken Barth, is a founder and top contributor to education political action committee Dallas Kids First.

When Miles wanted to expand prekindergarten programs in the district last year, he hired 32-year-old Alan Cohen from Symphonic Source to lead the effort. On his job application, Cohen wrote he applied for the job because Barth asked him to.

Before DISD, Cohen only spent 10 months in education, when he was a fellow at Commit, the education nonprofit led by influential businessman Todd Williams. He came to Dallas after he ran a marketing company in New York City, where he wrote a business plan for a Texas barbecue restaurant opening in the northeast. He makes $123,600 in DISD.

This last section disparages folks with snide cherry-picking. It makes me sick to my stomach.

Koprowski was hired to create 35 schools of choice to increase student and parent engagement in an offering that meets their needs. It’s designed to reduce student absences, lead to higher achievement, and lower teacher absences because they work in a model (single gender, STEM, dual-language, etc.) that resonates with them. I’m hoping those choices will include conversion to K-8 models. But that’s quibbling. Oh, and he was hired 90 days ago. The first school of choice won’t open until fall 2016. Oh, and he went to Harvard, and he worked at the state board of education office in Tennessee. But, sure, he’s a bad hire.

Coppedge I only know through a few casual meetings, but he’s great, super smart, and I hear he has a thick skin, so again I don’t need to defend him. His work defends itself.

Ken Barth’s kid went to school with my kid in DISD, although we didn’t know each other then. I’ve talked to him since, though, and his passion for helping DISD get better outcomes for poor kids is unquestioned. Suggesting he’s doing anything else seems absurd, but for those who see conspiracy in all acts of kindness and charity, I suppose he’s a master conspirator.

Alan Cohen I know well, partly because I met him before he took this job, and partly because early education is something I’m very passionate about. We’ve spent many hours discussing his plans for the district. He was hired less than a year ago to address and substantially grow DISD’s pre-K program both in terms of enrollment and quality. It will be five years before we see the fruit of that labor in 3rd-grade scores. I’ve talked to several folks at other agencies (like United Way, also very committed to early education in Dallas), and Cohen is basically a rockstar among these folks. Oh, and he’s got an MBA from the prestigious Northwestern Kellogg School of Management, the graduates of which ALWAYS start making six figures right away. There’s no question he’s worth more on the open market, if for no other reason than next Thursday’s presentation to the school board will be the third long-range strategic plan he’s done for a multibillion organization since he graduated. But, sure, pretend he’s not qualified because he once did a business plan for a barbecue restaurant.

You realize how big DISD, right? It’s a $1.7 billion operation. It’s as big as the e-cig market. It’s a business the size of L.A. Fitness. Oh, and it’s charged with educating the poorest kids in our city. It’s a political punching bag and a media piñata. And half-assessed stories like this one — which in no way get to core issues affecting kids, which never ask other education experts for their take, which only parrot the status-quo snakes who fill the DMN‘s comments section — make it harder to get good people to come here and stay here. You realize this, right? You realize that the paper is, in this way, hurting kids? And many of the editors there are making more than $100k to stand by and watch it happen.


  • joeptone

    Wait. WAIT. Hold on. An editor can make six figures?

  • incephalon

    And a new headline from Haag today: “Petition by Dallas ISD student: Mike Miles, you have ruined teaching”

    Nowhere in the petition does even the frustrated student (a junior in high school) use such juvenile, generalized in her language. She is actually very articulate in asking for more teacher pay, and the title of her petition is “Increase DISD teacher’s salaries, and set less stringent rules and regulations for how they teach and plan lessons.” How he morphed her title into that headline is beyond me.

    I also enjoyed his recent article where he copied and pasted from the blog of ‘unbiased legal expert’ Carla Ranger to get her ruling on the legality of Mike Miles and Bernadette Nutall fiasco.

    Or the one that started “Mike Miles doesn’t want you to know….”

    This guy is ridiculous.

  • 28 year reader

    If it’s his strategy to throw money at people to get the best, why isn’t he throwing the big dollars at the teachers? Isn’t that where the action occurs? Let’s face it, the best Superintendent and Cabinet with the worst teachers equals failure. The worst Superintendent with the best teachers equals success. But instead of paying for the best teachers, we seem to be running them off, and replacing them with new teachers. Imagine any sports team with 50% brand new players. It sounds ludricrous! (And just last week Eric Celeste, author, stated the average pay in Dallas for teachers was $67000. Makes you wonder about his sources, or his ability to navigate all the stories going around.)

  • Julie Long Sherrod

    I think people who make a living from community funds and make well into the six figures are uncomfortable unless they are surrounded by others making six figures. It’s easy to dole it out when it’s like Monopoly money. How many good teachers do we lose out on for every $100K administrator? The idea that public administrators should be lured by salaries competitive with private enterprises is just wrong. A decent living wage and good benefits and a top leader who makes no more than 15% above the next highest paid is a better way. Teachers should be able to make that next highest pay grade through a career committed to children. $143K/yr for superintendent $125K/yr for next highest. Teachers start at $65K/yr and everyone uses the same potential yearly raise scale. The kids would benefit. It’s about the work… not the manufactured ‘keep up with the other cities’ ranking for salaries that is so prevalent these days when it’s public money being divvied up. Not right.

    • Todd Williams

      Most people will agree that our private schools are quite strong as evidenced by some which only admit 20% of those that apply with long waiting lists willing to pay substantial sums in private school tuition. They do not operate the way that you suggest.

      If you want quality at all levels, you have to pay for it. If we believe that teachers are underpaid relative to administrators, which I do, then we should pay teachers more, not compound the problem by paying less than market and getting substandard execution in HR, finance, IT, etc.

  • theaveragejoe

    ” It’s a political punching bag and a media piñata. And half-assessed stories like this one — which in no way get to core issues affecting kids, which never ask other education experts for their take, which only parrot the status-quo snakes who fill the DMN‘s comments section — make it harder to get good people to come here and stay here. You realize this, right? You realize that the paper is, in this way, hurting kids? And many of the editors there are making more than $100k to stand by and watch it happen.”

    First, without having any kind of Journalism background, I think that some folks over at the DMN provide good points and they are very fair. The other ones just like you are not.

    So what I feel that these people need to work hard for my money if they improve schools. I have never seen any results of schools getting better under Miles watch. Yes, I came him time, but then all of the drama unfolded and I lost hope once again.

    No where have the so called “status-quo” people have said they want to hurt kids. It is you and the other mafia members that want to. So I’m guessing now I have become labeled as status-quo as well because I don’t support Miles.

    Going back to the six figures, they have to work for it just like the teachers. Why is it that so easy they can ask for a raise, but even in my job if I were to do that, I would get a laugh from my boss. They must work for it just like everyone else including me and everyone else.

    Miles has hurt kids, did you read about the petition that the student created from Rangel?

    Sorry, that guy caused my family to move out of DISD, city government as well.

  • Ann Sansone

    C’mon, Mr. Celeste! Time to review info. on charter schools. As a graduate of the Broad Foundation’s superintendent academy, Mike Miles is NOT an advocate for public schools. Advocates of charter schools typically are in it for the $. Follow the $.

  • Ms V
  • Retiredteacher

    @Eric Celeste I can almost see you stamping your feet that a DMN reporter dared to publish a story about
    excessive salaries in Miles’ administration. You know more about charters than X commenter ever will? Why don’t you share with us the vast knowledge you have about charters? Why so against Diane Ravitch? Because she was once a reformer who changed her mind once she saw that “reform” folks (Broad and Michelle Rhee) were decimating public schools with NO increase in student scores? DO tell us all about the overall successes of the charter movement. Make sure you report ALL the data wihout cherry-picking data on individual charters like North hills Prep.

  • DallasSingleMom

    I appreciate this report and it’s written so that a layperson like me with no understanding of education administration can understand.

  • Bruce Levy

    What is the Ashford Group of Companies and why does this blog need a sponsor? What is your relationship to this company? Just wondering. Maybe that’s how it is done these days, but that means this blog is sponsored content–like advertising–rather than journalism. So what exactly are you advertising?

    • zaccrain

      That he, like anyone who works in journalism and various other pursuits, accepts advertising as a way to make a living. Just like the Morning News, whose site is currently covered in so many ads for Southwest Airlines it looks more like a Southwest site than a DMN site on quick glance.

    • Retiredteacher

      I also find it interesting that Monte Bennett, the owner of Ashford is on the board of SOPS and a couple of other groups that favor charters over public schools. Maybe that is why Celeste claims to know so much about charters: he has Todd Williams and Monte Bennett whispering in his ear.

  • Bruce Levy

    Just wondering: How do you know that you know more about charter schools than Ms. Sansone ever will? Perhaps that is true, but how do you know this? Since when does pugnacity count for reasoning and evidence?

  • Bruce Levy

    Are there particular columns in the DMN that are directly sponsored by companies? Perhaps I am missing something. Sure, media outlets exist because of advertising. And advertising has always effected content in varying degrees. But, I am just curious why a Blog within a magazine has a particular sponsor. Have they bought the “naming rights” from Mr. Celeste.What does “sponsorship” even mean here. Is Mr. Celeste in the employ of the Ashford Group? Just looking for some transparency. When I was a kid, Albert Shanker, the longtime President of the American Federation of Teachers had a column the union paid for in the NYTimes Week in Review section every week. Is this something like that? Mr. Shanker’s tone was more informative than pugilistic.

  • Marian
  • Webchecker

    “If you want quality at all levels, you have to pay for it.” It’s his strategy to get the best people, and he hates haggling over salary, so he throws money at ’em.” So to get the best people, you need to pay them. Check the suburbs for pay for both teachers and substitutes. If he wants quality, why isn’t he paying for it in the classroom? Dallas used to pay the most, now the suburbs do. Where do you think the best will end up?

  • Bruce Levy

    So because the hiring of Mark Lamster as an architecture critic was a great hire by the DMN, it is therefore reasonable to think that the people Mike Miles hires are also great hires! So, OK, Eric. No arguing with that kind of reasoning. Could one also say that because a lot of the Cowboy drafts have been awful, that we can also conclude that a lot of Miles’ hires have also been awful? It’s hard for you to make good arguments when for whatever reason you are frothing at the mouth. Take it down a few notches and try to make more reasoned claims.

  • Marian

    I can assure you, Mr. Celeste, that Ann Sansone knows more about touching the heart and mind of a child than you ever will. In her over 20 years of teaching, she has influenced more children to love school and learning than TEIs will ever achieve.

  • Ms V
  • Anonymous

    Eric, Thank you for approving more comments. I think it makes Learning Curve more interesting. Moderating comments is a tough to do and time-consuming. I appreciate your efforts.