Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

NCLB Outrages

Houston may keep details about bonuses secret; District asks attorney general if it has to reveal names and amounts

Ohanian Comment: The district argues that the bonus amounts are private because they equate to teacher performance evaluations. I have worked in school districts, and I have worked in the private sector. One thing I liked about teaching was that salaries were open, according to schedule, and not subject to gamesmanship. I did not give a rat's patootie that I worked harder and did a better job than some of my colleagues. That was my pleasure, thank you very much.

In the private sector, salaries are a big secret, and plenty of hardworking, capable people get cheated as a result. And gamesmanship is supreme. People spend a lot of time worrying about their salaries and the salaries of the people across the hall. It is a real shame to poison public school salary schedules with such business procedures.

When the amounts of bonus pay range from $66 to $7,865, you know the situation is dicey. The Houston Federation of Teachers did not stand tall last year. You can see where they stand in encouraging/leading teachers to take a role as proud, active, assertive professionals when you look at their pitiful links page Stay tuned for what they do this year.

By Ericka Mellon

Houston public school employees will receive about $23 million in bonuses today, but the district likely will fight to keep taxpayers from seeing exactly how it disbursed the money.

Last year, the district, in response to a Houston Chronicle request, released a list of the amounts for each employee who received a bonus. The Chronicle published the information on its Web site so that parents could see whether their children's teachers had gotten bonuses under the district's new performance pay program, designed to reward top talent.

This year, though, Houston Independent School District officials are taking steps to withhold bonus data from the public, arguing that it is confidential under the state's public information law.

The district has asked Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott whether it must comply with the newspaper's request for a list of employees and their estimated bonuses. Employees received estimates this month so they could appeal any mistakes before checks go out today.

Elneita Hutchins-Taylor, the district's general counsel, argued in a letter to Abbott that the estimates are confidential under law because they are not final and are in draft form.

She also made a broader argument that the bonus amounts are private because they equate to teacher evaluations.

The bonuses are based on a complicated formula involving student test scores. Part of the formula rewards teachers whose students perform better than expected. Teachers and other employees also can earn bonus money based on the overall performance of their school.

State law dictates that performance evaluations for teachers and administrators are confidential.

A change of heart?
The district "likely" will try to withhold the final bonus amounts ΓΆ€” at least for teachers ΓΆ€” based on the teacher evaluation argument, Hutchins-Taylor said.

That appears to be a change from the district's earlier position. Last week, HISD spokesman Terry Abbott said the district planned to release the information to the Chronicle at 4 p.m. today.

The district is basing its case in part on an attorney general opinion issued this month involving the Dallas Independent School District, which received permission to withhold the numerical ratings it assigns to teachers based on student test scores. The ratings, requested by the Dallas Morning News, are the basis of the district's new performance pay plan.

DISD has not yet awarded its bonuses, and the attorney general opinion did not address whether the related dollar amounts would be public.

In her letter to the state, Hutchins-Taylor said the Chronicle's request was "analogous" to the Dallas information. The Chronicle requested dollar amounts, however, not teacher ratings.

"The issue here," Hutchins-Taylor said, "would be whether revealing the dollar amount is so closely tied to student achievement information that it, too, might be considered confidential."

The attorney general must rule on the district's request, dated Jan. 28, within 55 working days.

Leaders of HISD teachers' groups contend that the bonus amounts are public record, although some teachers might wish they were not. Some employees were angry last year after their bonuses were made public.

"That is the weakest argument that I have heard (the district) come up with in years," said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. "This has nothing to do with evaluation. This has to do with test scores."

$66 to $7,865
Chuck Robinson, executive director of the Congress of Houston Teachers, agreed that the figures should be public record.

"At the same time, it's understandable how a lot of teachers became concerned and felt that revealing that kind of information had divisive consequences on campus," he added.

HISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra last year disagreed with the Chronicle's decision to post the amounts online. But he told employees in a letter, "After much consultation with school-district attorneys and outside legal counsel, it was determined that we were legally obligated to provide the requested information."

Nearly 12,800 teachers and other employees will receive bonuses today, according to the district. The amounts for teachers range from $66 to $7,865.

— Ericka Mellon
Houston Chronicle


This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.