Transparency imperative

On Jan. 17, the Greater Johnstown School District Board of Education approved raises for district administrators. The board knew the amounts of the raises, but taxpayers and the rest of the public had to wait a week to find out.

This is not the way a public school district should operate. Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, said the Johnstown school district should have released the information immediately.

The district finally disclosed the details Friday. The raises for eight administrators totaled $17,000.

The district said it was waiting to release the information until the administrators association officially ratified the raises. In a news release, Superintendent Robert DeLilli explained: “Disclosure of terms prior to formal vote by both sides could potentially obstruct the process and even create a (Public Employee Relation Board) violation. Once the terms are approved by both the district and the union, the agreement will be made a public document.”

DeLilli’s statement neglects to mention the school board voluntarily agreed to the secrecy as part of the “ground rules” for negotiating a change to the administrators’ contract. Violating those ground rules could have resulted in a PERB citation, but the district shouldn’t agree to such rules in the first place.

Lack of transparency on school boards is nothing new. Too often, public schools forget they are obligated to follow open-government rules. The public has the right to know what’s going on in their municipalities and school districts, especially when these public bodies spend taxpayers’ money on raises.

It’s unfortunate all public-employee union contract proposals aren’t publicized before they are approved. This would give taxpayers a chance to voice their concerns before public money is spent.

As for the raises, Johnstown school board President Paul Vandenburgh called them a “token of our appreciation.” The administrators may be working hard since the onset of the new teacher evaluation system, but we wonder whether the taxpayers are as sympathetic as the school board. Many workers in the private sector, particularly since the layoffs resulting from the recession that began in 2007, have seen their workloads increase, but they have received little, if any, extra compensation.

The salaries of Johnstown’s administrators range from $71,700 to $98,400, which may seem low compared to some of the school administrators in other parts of the Capital Region, but they’re more than fair when you consider the low cost of living in Johnstown and Fulton County and the income levels of local taxpayers.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in the city of Johnstown in 2012 was $40,661, the per-capita income of people living in the city was $23,986 and the median cost of an owner-occupied house was $102,300, less than half the state median home cost of $295,300. The state’s median household income level is $57,683, significantly less than the salary of every administrator who works for Johnstown.

This newspaper always will press for the release of public employees’ salaries, as we did for the latest raises in the Johnstown school district.