Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008 | After San Diego Unified kicked off its new fraud hotline, its audits office was flooded with new investigations, making director Andrea Niehaus’ job a lot tougher. Niehaus got a roughly $10,000 raise after human resources staffers checked out her new tasks.

Elsewhere in the school district, American Sign Language interpreters were suddenly required to get higher certifications, thanks to a new California law. Human resources noticed and recommended raises, tacking about $200 to the highest-level interpreters’ paychecks.

Paying Up

  • The Issue: When school employees take on new responsibilities, they can ask the school district to reassess their pay. The system’s critics say the raises aren’t closely tracked and aren’t transparent to the public.
  • What It Means: While working through a backlog of job reclassifications, San Diego schools have faced increased costs for those raises in recent years.
  • The Bigger Picture: With a school budget crisis looming, some critics question why reclassifications aren’t stopped. But district staffers worry that halting the changes would just pile costs onto future budgets.

They’re not alone. As jobs change, dozens of San Diego Unified school workers have increased their pay by changing job descriptions, bumping to a new step on the salary schedules that govern their pay.

Such reclassifications have ballooned in the past three years, after budget-minded moratoriums were placed on the practice earlier in the decade. That temporary hold built up a backlog of requests, now spilling into a higher number of such increases granted over the last three years. Halfway through this school year, San Diego Unified trustees have approved at least 18 such raises, totaling roughly $200,000 in increased salaries and back pay.

Now, as the school faces another round of budget cuts, district staffers say they’re unlikely to halt the practice, fearing that stopping reclassifications could build up another backlog, taxing future budgets.

As human resources staffers finally approve the long-awaited raises, employees have been granted pay for several years prior, dating back to when they requested the increase. One such switch, approved last November on an outside consultant’s recommendation, bolstered a human resources executive assistant’s pay by more than $12,000 annually, and layered three years of back pay onto the boost.

The expenses are paid out all at once, piling the costs onto this year’s budget. Overall, the number of job reclassifications resulting in raises roughly doubled between 2005 and 2008, compared to the three previous years, according to a analysis of school board agendas.

In addition, at least 17 new positions have been created this school year. How much those jobs cost San Diego Unified is unclear without knowing whether they were filled by incumbents or new hires, and whether the incumbents moved from lower or higher-paying jobs.

The system is legal and routine, intended to help employees who take on extra work to adjust their pay accordingly, as provided by California law. Human resources staffers evaluate each claim, and the school board — albeit with limited information — OKs each request.

But as budget woes loom again over San Diego schools, critics are questioning the practice. While San Diego Unified has halted travel and conferences and clamped down on hiring, bracing for the budget cuts, job reclassifications have gone untouched. Observers worry that the increases, though relatively small compared to the overall budget, aren’t closely tracked and aren’t transparent to the public.

“I don’t see a line item on the budget for reclassifications,” said Dave Fernandez, a labor relations representative with the California School Employees Association. Fernandez, who now represents office and technical workers in San Diego Unified, formerly worked in human resources for another district. “Here we are in crunch mode, and there’s other things to cut than human bodies. … Should we start trying to rein in reclassification, so those moneys can be used to help offset other things?”

Human resources staffers said it isn’t fair to deny employees a valid increase, citing the state law that outlines the practice. Far from an easy route to higher pay, employees complain that job reclassification has been molasses-slow, with decisions delayed as long as two years.

The lag frustrated Kelly Craig, a special education employee who requested a switch in 2005 after clerical tasks began consuming more and more of her time. Her request was recently granted after a roughly two-year wait.

“After a year, I called them and said, ‘What’s up with the reclassification?” she said. “And they said, ‘What reclassification?’”

The school board, which approves each new salary step, is rarely informed on why the changes are being made. The boosts are usually approved on consent, where everyday business is voted on without discussion.

And the expenses aren’t precisely budgeted for ahead of time, though the district keeps some funds reserved to help pay for the changes. (Exact figures could not be obtained by press time Wednesday.)

“We follow the advice of the superintendent. We rely on his business judgment,” said Katherine Nakamura, school board president. “… If something’s way out of whack … someone will find a way to let us know.”

Board members receive limited information about the changes, trusting that human resources staffers have evaluated the claims, Nakamura said. Memos supplied to the school board before each meeting lay out the reclassifications’ costs, the number of employees impacted, and how far back the pay changes go.

But members of the public, glancing at a school board agenda, have little information to help understand the changes’ costs. That worries David Page, a parent who chairs a district committee on the use of federal funds for low-income children. Page is suspicious of such salary boosts, especially as budgets are under threat. School enrollment, which drives school budgets, is predicted to drop slightly in San Diego; state funding is plummeting. A number of employees benefiting from the switches are supervisors and managers — employees far removed from the classroom, he noted.

“These things ought not to be on consent, in my view,” said Frances O’Neill Zimmerman, a former San Diego Unified trustee. “Especially if it’s a big-ticket item, that involves a real raise for anyone in administration — I’d want a justification, and a dollar figure. … Certainly raises can be defended. This should be out in the open.”

Job reclassification has historically been controversial inside San Diego Unified schools, sparking gripes about favoritism. While employees say the process is more accessible, they complain that there is little recourse to appeal a decision outside of human resources itself.

Meanwhile, the delays have piled reclassification costs onto the past two years, as staffers clean up the backlog. Ten raises this school year were backdated more than six months — six were posted to July 2005, and two to July 2004.

“Unfortunately, it’s part of the cost of doing business,” said Jodi Smith, the district’s chief of staff. “… If an employee is actually doing additional duties [and isn’t being paid more], you’re essentially withholding their salary.”

Joni Collins, who delivers packages for the school district, has experienced that firsthand. Her job responsibilities multiplied in 2003, during an earlier budget crisis, but she chose not to request a reclassification, feeling it was an inappropriate time. Coworkers were losing their jobs, she said. In 2005, when budgets recovered, Collins asked for human resources to reexamine her job. A year passed before a human resources staffer contacted her, Collins said. Her paychecks didn’t change until last fall.

To speed up the process, San Diego Unified has narrowed the window when employees can ask for a reclassification, restricting such requests to each fall. Hill said her department aims to answer every request within a single fiscal year. This fall, 105 current employees asked to nudge their jobs higher on the salary scale, citing new responsibilities.

And in a changing school district, with heavier demands put on schools to track data, use new technology, and try new approaches, employees’ jobs are genuinely changing all the time, said Patricia Hill, human resources manager of classified personnel. Gaming the system is theoretically possible, she said, but Hill hasn’t observed it.

“Reclassification is [happening] every day,” Hill said.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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