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Analysis: It was the number that unleashed an outcry.
The new chief financial officer at the San Diego Unified School District sat down recently for what turned out to be an extraordinary Q-and-A. In it, Stan Dobbs offered up some numbers to illustrate what he perceives as a culture of fiscal waste at the district.
Chief among them: Dobbs’ claim that district teachers are paid an average of $92,000 a year, plus a $20,000 benefits package, for a total of $112,000 annually.
Those numbers are wrong.
Monday, district Superintendent Bill Kowba refuted those numbers in a written statement pointing out several factual errors he said Dobbs made in the interview. Along with the statement, Kowba included an explanation of how Dobbs’ screwed his numbers up.
The $92,000 figure Dobbs cited includes benefits, Kowba said.
The district calculated the average teacher salary for the 2013-14 school year at $68,013. Added to that figure is a total benefits package that averages $24,017. That makes for a total of $92,030. Note: That’s the current level. Salaries will likely go up slightly when the district receives extra revenue as a result of Proposition 30.
We wanted to go a step further, however. The issue of teacher compensation is a touchy one, and we wanted to dive into the data to calculate the average ourselves.
The district provided us with a spreadsheet showing the “scattergram” of teachers employed by San Diego Unified, and their salary info, as of Jan. 31. This is basically an accounting of how many teachers are currently employed under all the various positions on several different pay schedules maintained by the district. (For various reasons, teachers at San Diego Unified are employed under a variety of pay schedules; there’s no one schedule for all teachers).
We crunched that data and determined the average teacher salary as of Jan. 31 is $66,983.02, or about $1,000 less than Kowba’s figure.
District Chief of Staff Bernie Rhinerson explained that the small discrepancy between Kowba’s figure and ours is due to the exact date on which the figure is calculated. The number of employees at the district changes every day, he said, and employees move up the pay scale on a daily basis, meaning the average salary fluctuates daily.
Regardless of which figure one uses, Dobbs was well off the mark.
Here’s our definition for statements that warrant a false rating:
The statement is not accurate. This could be an error or misstatement but it’s simply not true and there is no element of truth to it.
We believe that Dobbs made the statement about $92,000 based on his inaccurate recollection of the data. He mistakenly included the cost of benefits in the average salary.
It was a big mistake.
This is the definition we use for labeling a statement Huckster Propaganda:
The statement is not only inaccurate but it’s reasonable to expect the person or organization making it knew that and made the claim anyway to gain an advantage.
Is it reasonable to expect that the CFO of the district should know these figures off by heart? Yes — in most cases. But Dobbs has only been with the district for a few weeks. And it’s clear that Dobbs used the wrong figure (the total average teacher compensation of $92,000) in place of the average total salary.
We also don’t think Dobbs’ statement meets the high bar for our worst rating since it’s unclear how Dobbs would gain an advantage by misstating the numbers.
When we label statements “Huckster Propaganda,” it is almost always in cases where the person making the statement knew it was false, but kept repeating it anyway to make him or herself look better or to excuse his or her actions.
In Dobbs’ case, his statement has brought him intense scrutiny, a public dressing-down from his boss and, in some cases, ridicule. We have no evidence that he made the statement in order to gain some advantage, and we have plenty of evidence (including a written apology from the district superintendent) to show that he ultimately lost credibility in the eyes of many San Diegans by getting his data wrong.
If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.
Will Carless is an investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego currently focused on local education. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5670.
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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.