Mom questions spin doctors’ salaries while school funding's tight

Mom questions spin doctors’ salaries while school funding's tight »Play Video

PORTLAND, Ore. – KATU’s On Your Side Investigators have discovered Portland Public Schools spends a half-million dollars on spin doctors - staff members in communications and lobbying positions. Meanwhile, schools have struggled with overcrowded classrooms.

Below is the annual salary information on five employees in PPS’s community involvement and public affairs department:

  • Chief of Communications and Public Affairs: $124,500
  • Director, Government Relations - $98,047
  • Sr. Manager/Community & Staff Engagement – $82,197
  • Sr. Manager/Community & Staff Engagement - $82,197
  • Manager/ School News & Social Media - $71,534

Total Salaries: $458,475

The average annual teacher salary in Portland is about $54,000.

"It’s indefensible that we're spending this much money on a department that basically has been charged with hiding problems," said Kim Sordyl, a mother of two children at Ainsworth Elementary School.

Sordyl pointed out a group to KATU called the Ainsworth Foundation, which says it raises more than $300,000 a year to help fund teaching positions at Ainsworth Elementary. Those include physical education, music and library positions the group says would likely otherwise go unfunded.

KATU asked a district spokeswoman about the foundation's claims on Monday and so far she hasn’t issued a response on that issue.

Last school year, the teachers union complained of overcrowding in classrooms, and the state threatened to void future high school diplomas from Portland Public Schools, saying students were not taking the mandatory minimum of instructional hours.

The district responded by lengthening the school year and hiring new staff members, including 180 new teachers, but its spin doctors are still together collectively making nearly $460,000.

To get some perspective, KATU compared Portland Public Schools, which last year served 47,000 students (this year 48,000 children are enrolled) to two similar sized districts elsewhere: Sacramento City Unified School District in California, which served 47,900 students from 2013-2014 and Manatee County School District in Florida, which educated more than 46,000 children last year.

Here’s how the annual salary totals for their communications departments stack up:

  • Portland Public Schools - $458,475
  • Sacramento City Unified School District - $393,408
  • Manatee County School District - $210,921

Still to be fair, Sacramento and Manatee are just two other districts and their departments aren't identical. Only Portland has a government relations director, for example.

To get an objective point of view, KATU’s On Your Side Investigators interviewed an out of town expert, University of Southern California education Professor Guilbert Hentschke.

“I was the assistant to the superintendent in Chicago Public Schools,” Hentschke said. “I taught in San Jose and I've done a lot of education work, but I've been in higher education in the area of the business of education for many years."

When KATU showed Hentschke the spin doctors’ salaries in Portland he said, "My initial reaction is they seem a little high."

But he also said a school district could be justified in paying out that kind of money if it were doing a particularly labor intensive type of survey.

"What I'm referring to is a much more detailed, literally student-by-student repeat analysis of attitudes and opinions both of students and of parents,” Hentschke said. “Think of that as a survey/research arm."

KATU asked a Portland Public Schools spokeswoman if the district's doing that kind of intense research and she said no.

Sacramento and Manatee school districts said they're not doing it either.

Portland Public Schools sent KATU a statement, which says, “The Community Affairs and Public Involvement team proudly serves more than 48,000 students and their families at more than 80 schools in dozens of languages. Our team is dedicated to keeping all families informed about their childrens’ (sic) education. We are dedicated to building partnerships with businesses, faith-based and community organizations, and helping parents be more involved with the schools their children attend. We are lucky to serve a community with such involved parents and neighbors. Even with a staff that often works seven days a week, we barely meet the demand for information and opportunities to get involved.”