March 15, 2010

Probing cost of school raises

— Whenever our news staff holds public meetings in the community, especially in the Portland area, we hear a common refrain: Please do more investigative reporting. Please keep better tabs on government. Please help us hold elected officials accountable.

Readers value reporting of this kind. And so do journalists. It is the reason that many of us got into the profession in the first place.

But investigative reporting is not a quick turn. Often, reporters and editors must spend months trying to unravel one issue. It's meticulous detective work that can monopolize a reporter's time for weeks on end.

Along the way, there are bureaucracies to battle, reluctant interviewees to track down, theories to test and retest, and reams of documents to digest. There is legal language to decipher and red tape to combat.

Sometimes your quest follows a smooth path; more often than not, however, it is a rocky road, filled with formidable obstacles and barricades. The answers don't come easy; the sources aren't always cooperative.

Some reporters like a fresh start each day, relishing the idea of covering the latest breaking news developments and seeing their bylines in the newspaper. This is not their cup of tea. Investigative reporting requires a single, long-term focus; it takes a lot of patience, fortitude and endurance.

Today on Page A1 we offer a riveting example of such work. One of our top reporters, Dieter Bradbury, took a look at the Portland school budget, particularly at the raises that teachers had been granted under a new labor contract that was later modified. The project spanned four months.

His questions: How much did the salary raises allowed by that new contract end up costing taxpayers in Portland? Why was the contract put in place with such liberal rules around salary adjustments? Did anyone know the actual costs that would be incurred when it was approved? And, finally, even though the contract has been changed, how will Portland deal with the higher budget floor now in place as a result of those pay increases?

I asked Bradbury to reflect on his work and his experiences reporting this story.

''I hope that this story gives readers new insights into the relationships among the Portland School Committee, the district administration and the school system's largest union of educators,'' he said. ''Those relationships aren't always apparent in press releases and public meetings. Yet they reveal much about how the school board and its employees run our schools and spend the public money that supports them.''

Top findings:

n Teachers were able to gain salary increases by taking additional training. The school district underestimated how many teachers would take up that offer. According to Bradbury's story: ''The number of teachers and other educators who moved into higher salary brackets under the contract was three times the number forecast by the school district.''

n Those raises ''added $854,000 in additional salary spending to the fiscal year 2008 school budget. That's 144 percent more than the budgeted amount of $350,000.''

n Tuition reimbursement for college courses taken by teachers also was affected. With so many teachers applying for that program, ''the increase drove total tuition reimbursement spending in the 2007 and 2008 fiscal years to $716,588. That's 46 percent more than the budgeted amount of $490,750.''

At the request of the reporter and this newspaper, school district officials agreed to review Bradbury's assumptions and findings. In the end, they agreed with his analysis and conclusions.

Even so, Bradbury said, it was very tough to get initial information from the school district. He had to send four written requests under the state right-to-know law to the school district in order to obtain public records on teachers' salaries and the budget impact.

''And I was surprised that they didn't have the answers to some of these questions, that apparently even they didn't realize how big some of these raises were, especially at the school committee level.''

Said Bradbury's editor, Grace Murphy: ''This project proved that holding government accountable for the way it spends taxpayer dollars isn't easy, quick or convenient.''

For example, she said, ''When officials did not return his calls, or provide documents when promised, Dieter camped out at the school administration office, spending hours in the reception area until his presence was acknowledged.''

I asked Bradbury about the most difficult part of this story.

''I encountered a distinct lack of cooperation in reporting this story. It was difficult to obtain the information I needed, even though all of it was clearly a matter of public record.''

We hope you find Bradbury's story insightful and helpful in understanding the Portland teacher contract issue -- from its impetus to its modification to its impact. We pursued this story in the vein of public service journalism, with an eye toward giving our readers and the public at large more detailed information on this important topic.

Let us know what you think.

Jeannine Guttman is editor and vice president of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. Send e-mail to jguttman@pressherald.com or write to 390 Congress St., Portland, ME 04101.

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