Jayne: Teachers need more chutzpah, administrators less

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

Published:

 
photoGreg Jayne, Opinion page editor

I knew there was a reason I didn't become a school district administrator.

Never mind the lack of qualifications, or the lack of desire to manage hundreds of employees, or the lack of interest in 60-hour work weeks. And handling a multimillion-dollar budget? Well, let's just say I'd rather gouge my ears with a pencil.

Yes, there are valid reasons for not becoming a school district administrator, and yet those reasons pale in comparison with the personal shortcoming that keeps me out of the profession: I don't have enough chutzpah. You see, being in that kind of leadership position requires plenty of what Webster's says is "supreme self-confidence, nerve, or gall," and that, as far as I can tell, is what makes Dr. Steve Webb a perfect fit as Superintendent of Vancouver Public Schools.

Webb, as detailed last week by Columbian reporter Susan Parrish, has enjoyed a 28 percent increase in total compensation during his six years on the job. This has come at a time of shrinking budgets and struggling taxpayers and no cost-of-living raises for teachers. Yet Webb points out that, "My compensation for 2012-13 is still $10,000 below the average. Today, it would be about $20,000 below."

Never mind that we haven't defined what "average" means. But, coming from the same guy who spent $4,000 of district money to install a shower near his office, such a viewpoint qualifies as chutzpah.

Not that Webb should be dripping with humility. Under his watch, Vancouver Public Schools have won every award this side of an Oscar and a Grammy, and one school board member described him as a "gifted visionary, man of action, prodigious work ethic; the board marvels at energy and talent."

This is the same school board that last year saw fit to put Webb on an action plan to alter his behavior, after a district staff member accused him of creating a hostile work environment. Among other items, the district reminded that Webb should "refrain from any behavior or communications that are unprofessional and/or uncivil." It also spent $12,000 hiring a consultant to observe Webb's management style and provide advice. Kind of like a high-priced reading tutor.

Webb said of the school board: "Their role is to evaluate and support me to a higher level of performance. They've been judicious, thoughtful and deliberate."

Yet when it comes to salaries, the Vancouver school board probably could use a little more deliberation. In pondering Webb's pay for the coming year and the averageness of it, the situation points out a fallacy that is endemic among public employees.

You see, public employees like to compare themselves to those in similar positions in other locales and then declare that they are underpaid (note that they never employ this strategy if they make more than their peers). Then, after a raise is secured, peers in other places point to that in support of their own salary demands. Around and around it goes, with "average" salary supplanting an employees' worth as the barometer of fair compensation.

Such is the logic the Vancouver City Council used recently in approving a 17 percent pay raise for City Manager Eric Holmes. Such is the logic that has taxpayers pulling out their hair as they are continually handed the bills for these raises. The lesson, as always, is that it's easy for public agencies to spend money when its taxpayer money that's being spent.

Meanwhile, teachers continue to fight for whatever scraps they can get. In 2000, Washington voters approved an annual cost-of-living increase for teachers with 63 percent of the vote, but that increase has — rightly — been suspended during the Great Recession. Teachers have strong benefits packages and get plenty of vacation time, but it's difficult to argue against the cost-of-living increase when the boss has enjoyed a significant pay raise.

Teachers across the state have, understandably, made this argument, but to no avail. Perhaps they need a little more chutzpah.