How Much are California K-12 Support Staff Really Paid?

So far we’ve examined the compensation of two groups of K-12 education employees – teachers and administrators. Now let’s look at the support staff such as office clerks, accountants, custodians, landscapers and cafeteria workers that keep schools running smoothly.

Support labor costs average about 14 percent of total education spending. That added up to about $12 billion in 2021, according to California Department of Education data. That means every 1 percent increase in this costs K-12 education $120 million.

Education funds are limited, and we hear (continuously) from the education establishment that they are underfunded. That makes it important we look at all costs, particularly those that account for such a huge portion of spending.

Which is what we do at Transparent California.

Our database has almost 25 million records detailing $1.7 trillion annually in compensation provided to public employees. This includes more than 8 million records from public school districts obtained using legal public records requests. They come from the same payroll data used to report compensation to the IRS.

Records from 2020 show the median total compensation of a support staff member was $73,779 with median pay only of $51,181. How does that compare with the private sector?

In private industry hiring managers often know what similar jobs pay in their area. If they want a more objective measure, salary surveys can be obtained to provide real data.

Claims are often made that support staff should be paid more, but those claims are rarely accompanied by data justifying that request. Demands for higher pay are usually supported with anecdotal hardship stories, stories of low pay compared to other similar jobs, and stories of problems with attracting and retaining quality employees.

Perhaps the demands for higher pay are correct. Perhaps district pay rates are low for the area or there’s difficulties attracting people for open positions or employees leaving for higher pay elsewhere.

But if any of these are the case, shouldn’t districts be required to provide substantiation for those claims? and what evidence should be required?

First, salary surveys of comparable jobs in the immediate area.

Often districts produce surveys showing what other school districts pay for similar jobs. This ignores the fact it’s unlikely someone working as a custodian in one district is going to leave to work in a district many miles away with a long commute simply to make another dollar an hour. It also ignores whether there are even any actual vacancies in those districts.

What value is there in knowing an administrative assistant in a district 30 miles away makes $1 an hour more if few would choose that commute for the small difference or if there are no jobs available there?

Districts should provide salary surveys showing pay for similar jobs from private employees in the same area. Your district’s true competition is not the district 30 miles away but all the local businesses in or near the same area.

Next, we need to see data on attraction and retention.

How many qualified people fill out applications for every opening? How many employees leave for jobs with higher pay elsewhere? How do both relate to comparable statistics for private employers in your area?

Every dollar given to employees takes dollars away from programs and services to improve the education of kids. Any CEO asked to take money away from services to customers would demand that data to justify the need to do that. Shortchanging the company’s customers based on a need for increases justified by “because we say so” would be financial malpractice.

Are district support staff fairly paid? Maybe not. But before simply assuming they aren’t because that’s what they say at school board meetings, demand that your district run a cost-benefit analysis.

Next up in this series we’re going to look at benefits.

Education jobs often come with benefit packages that provide employees with much more costly retirement and healthcare benefits than are given to private employees. We’ve been told this is necessary to make up for poor pay.

So far in this series we’ve seen that “poor pay in K-12 education” is a largely myth (certainly for teachers and administration). In the next installment we’ll look at just what goes into benefit plans in our K-12 districts.

Stay tuned!

Todd Maddison is the Research Director for the public pay watchdog website Transparent California, and a parent activist working to improve K12 education in our state.

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