Oklahoma Watchdog stories impact legislative debate over public employee pay

In the days leading up to the start of the 2012 legislative session, reports from Oklahoma Watchdog, an online news organization in Oklahoma City, are impacting debate over the pay of a variety of public officials, including often-well-compensated local superintendents.

In recent news stories, Peter J. Rudy, editor of Oklahoma Watchdog, has methodically detailed the pay of those public school superintendents, and in a separate-but-related sequence, the implementation of possible pay increases for statewide elected officials. 

The stories took on added intensity Wednesday (February 1) after a Republican member of the House, Jason Nelson of Oklahoma City, cited two of Oklahoma Watchdog’s reports to bolster his proposal to freeze the salaries of public school superintendents.

The state House press release helped Nelson make his case. In that release, Nelson said:

“In a recent report, Oklahoma Watchdog found that 356 Oklahoma district superintendents (more than two-thirds) received some form of compensation increase this year [2011]. The combined expense of those raises was an extra $1.4 million annually.
Oklahoma Watchdog found that 37 of the superintendents receiving raises oversaw districts placed on the State Department of Education’s ‘Needs Improvement’ list and 16 of those individuals received raises of $5,000 or more.”
As Rudy reported in his original story:

“More than two-thirds of school superintendents are taking home more money this year than last year, according to data provided by the State Department of Education and compiled by Oklahoma Watchdog.  This, despite an appropriations cut of 4% or nearly $100-million to the State Department of Education this year.”
Oklahoma Watchdog’s Superintendent Salary Report found that the increases for 356 local superintendents would cost taxpayers $1.4 million. Oklahoma has a total of 522 public school districts. Local school boards decide on compensation for local superintendents. 

This week, Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi (an elected position in Oklahoma) announced she will not accept a pay increase for state officials triggered by an automatic link to judicial compensation. Oklahoma Watchdog broke the story about Barresi’s letter to legislators in which she said the pay hike “was wrong at a time when the education budget in our state has been cut.” 

On Feb. 1, Commissioner of Labor Mark Costello announced he would not accept the scheduled pay increase for state officials. Commissioner of Insurance John Doak also announced support for a bipartisan measure, led by Republican Rep. Charles Key of Oklahoma City, to strike down the judicial pay increase, and thus the linked pay hike for state officials. 

The anticipated pay hike for statewide elected officials would cost taxpayers $350,000 a year. 

Disclosure Note: Although separately managed, CapitolBeatOK and Oklahoma Watchdog are both projects of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a national organization networking and training independent investigative reporters, as well as journalists from state-based news organizations, public-policy institutions & watchdog groups.