Editor's Note: Taking out the trash in the school budget

Last year, the Savannah Morning News published the salary of local non-profit executives and I discovered I am one of the lowest paid ... I take pride in heading the largest governmental agency in the county. During my tenure, the district has grown by approximately 6000 students, I am responsible for more than 5000 employees, and manage a half billion dollar budget; one larger than any of the county, city or non-profit executives. If you compare the base salary of the 10 largest school districts in the state of Georgia, I am at or near the bottom.  

—Dr. Thomas Lockamy, School Superintendent, in an email to School Board members

YOU ALWAYS HEAR people say things like, “you can’t put a price on education,” and “anything for our children.”

But the truth is we put a price on educating children all the time, as we do with anything else.

If that weren’t so, School Superintendent Thomas Lockamy would be paid a billion dollars a year, and every teacher would be a multi-millionaire in a mansion.

We can and do make dollars-and-cents judgments about education all the time. Clearly, the judgments aren’t always sound.

Throughout America, college tuition continues to skyrocket unbelievablyalong with the salaries of university presidents and top administrators. (But not faculty.)

Throughout America, wages for the average working person stagnated decades ago while CEO compensation continues to rise with no end in sight.

Locally, our public schools more and more resemble the kind of One Percenter disparity we see throughout the country.

I have no particular issues with Dr. Lockamy. Not only could we be burdened with a much worse superintendent, Savannah has indeed had plenty of much worse superintendents in the past, and I can tell you who they were.

So all things considered, Lockamy has been a net plus for the district. This isn’t a personal attack.

But here is Lockamy’s newest compensation package, as recently approved by the Savannah/Chatham County School Board in its contract extension for him:

• $204,000 per year base salary;

• $40,000 per year annual bonus;

• 36 vacation days per year;

• A free vehicle.

Not too shabby for one of the poorest-performing school districts in one of the poorest-performing states in the union, eh?

I certainly don’t lay the sad state of our schools purely at Lockamy’s feet. But I think it’s a fair question to ask if this compensation package is a reasonable one.

So... do you think it’s reasonable?

Now, I’ve never bought into the schools-as-businesses or voters-as-shareholders model, simply because humanitarian goals are either secondary or nonexistent goals for corporations, whereby those are the main goals of a school system.

That said, we do put a price on education, and there is a public expectation that a salary package will track performance at least to a certain extent.

I believe teachers are evaluated like that?

And as we see with Lockamy’s generous compensation package, lack of money clearly isn’t the main challenge facing this district.

The fact remains that the per-student expenditure of our public schools is every bit on par with every private school in the area, with the sole exception of Savannah Country Day. (And to be fair to Lockamy, the headmaster of Country Day makes about double what he makes.)

The fact also remains that local public schools are by far the biggest taxing authority in the area, with well over half of every property tax bill going to the district (with yet another increase set for this year).

At some point these simple facts direct us to ask a simple question: Where is all the money going?

When you drill down into the details, you begin to see.

For example, last week the school board approved a new contract for waste management throughout the district.

The board opted to continue using a trash compacting system, rather than move to a less-expensive dumpster-based system, i.e. a “front-end” system.

While much of the rhetoric involved touting the supposed “green” benefits of trash compactingthough it all ends up in the same landfillcheck out the price difference between the bids:

The front-end systemthe bid rejected by the boardwould save nearly $4 million over a ten-year period.

(Not only that, but the revised budget neglects to include required dumping fees for the approved bidder, which could be construed as a form of taxpayer fraud when you think about it.)

Lockamy’s raise and the waste management decision both come at the same time there is a dire shortage of teachers in local schools, supposedly because the budget is too tight to hire any more.

How many new teachers do you think could be hired with $4 million over ten years?

Public school advocates often complain that the state of Georgia is taking away all the funding. And don’t get me wrong; I carry no water for this governor or his party on educational issues.

But it’s becoming clear that Nathan Deal and the Republicans, however misguided they might be on any number of issues, sometimes also serve as convenient scapegoats for school districts who don’t want to streamline their own budgets.

While it’s certainly true that Deal has hamstrung public schools, it’s just as true that the bulk of our school system’s discretionary budget remains local in origin.

As for Lockamy, this is America and I suppose you can’t fault him for taking a good deal when it’s handed to him. The issue of out-of-control compensation didn’t begin with him, nor will it end with him.

(Indeed, if I were fortunate enough to make a $40,000 annual bonus, I’d bet every penny that Lockamy’s eventual successor will be paid even more handsomely.)

That issue begins and ends with us, the voters. The key is to stay informed, and let the facts take us wherever they may.


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