State Employees Salaries to be Released Along with Names

State+Employees+Salaries+to+be+Released+Along+with+Names

Recently, the Wyoming Department of Education received a not-so-unusual request, but in an unusual format.

 Senator Tom James of Sweetwater County contacted the department to request the names and salaries of all state employees, which includes those working within the school district. This request is scheduled to be fulfilled on Dec 23, 2019, or at the latest Dec, 27, 2019 and raised much concern within the education community, but it is not as uncommon as one would think. 

Jillian Ballow, superintendent of public instruction for the state of Wyoming, relayed that her office actually processes hundreds of open records or Freedom of Information Act data requests each year. In fact, many of the requests ask that names are included with salaries. This information is given to the legislature every year in a report solely for budget purposes as well; however, names are not usually included in this particular report. 

“To receive a public information request is not unusual. What was unusual about Senator James’s request is that he asked for information that we have at the state level about employees, but we do not hire or manage the employees.” Ballow explained that there are 48 school districts in the state of Wyoming, and each school district is overseen by a locally elected board who makes decisions regarding hiring, firing, and paying employees. In essence, positions held within each particular school district are managed by their own school board, and the Wyoming Department of Education has little to no say in this process. 

Ballow merely oversees her own department, which made the request for names and salaries of her employees much easier to fulfill. “Because those are the people I employed, it’s my job to make those exclusions where they apply because I’ve hired them, I manage them, and I know them. The story is just really different when we’re talking about more than 10,000 employees across the state.” Upon receiving the request for her employee’s names and salaries, she was able to fulfill it within 24 hours. 

“What’s troublesome to me is that this request, I think, is better made at the local level with the locally elected school board so that at the local level, those people can be excluded…We can’t do anything to exclude you know, someone whose safety might be in jeopardy or someone who needs to be excluded for another reason. And we don’t know what the circumstances are. We don’t know who those people are because they’re not our employees,” Ballow stated.“Yes, it’s really great that there’s transparency in government and that a citizen can ask for this information. But it’s also problematic because we have the information to release, but we may not have all of the information to be very conscientious about that release.” 

Interestingly enough, this request was made at a local level prior to this month, according to Park County School District Superintendent Ray Schulte. Schulte commented that our school district, along with others, received the request from Senator James to release employees’ names and salaries a couple of months ago, which raised questions. Finally, James decided to go straight to the Wyoming Department of Education to fulfill the request, which Schulte believed was better in terms of organization. “The thing I like about that is at least it would be consistent. You know, if you looked at the information from Cody it would at least be in the same format as Powell and Lovell and Cheyenne.” 

As for why the request was made, Senator James explained that he will be using the information to assist him in examining the budget. He asserted that the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 promotes wage transparency with names in order to prevent liability for gender wage gaps and LGBTQ rights. “Names will be able to ensure that gender and LGBTQ lifestyle will not be a deciding factor in how much someone is getting paid by showing if there is an unusual gap in pay and further investigation shows it is not for a legitimate reason,” he stated. Nonetheless, educators are questioning how James will differentiate salaries without knowledge of their degrees and years spent teaching, which he relayed will not be included. In a recent survey that CHS Bonfire issued to Park 6 employees, one teacher commented, “I do make a nice salary, but people don’t understand the amount of hours I have spent getting my graduate degree, my National Boards, etc.  I have also sacrificed countless hours to better myself for my students. What the public sees is a dollar amount; not the amount of money I spend out of pocket to buy materials (often around $500 a year), and the weekends I spend in my elementary classroom getting ready for next week’s lessons.” 

He would also like to use the names attached to salaries for his own learning purposes. “I have stated repeatedly and clearly that requesting this information in the format being provided is complementary to my learning style. My goal in requesting the pay information for all State of Wyoming public employees is to better learn the granular details of how taxpayer money is being spent. As educators, it would seem to me that you would encourage learning in whatever style is most effective.”

Through the survey, it was revealed that teachers are concerned about quarrels between the community or other staff members because of wages. One respondent shared: “I don’t appreciate the public knowing how much money I make. The public will not understand the amount of time outside of the school day that is dedicated to my job- paperwork, planning, feedback to students, sponsor of clubs, coaching, and summer school.”

Senator James is aware of the concerns about safety and potential disputes that lie within his request, and has repeatedly stated that he has no intention of releasing the names attached to salaries. He also asserted that the information is kept on an encrypted external hard drive that, reportedly, is disconnected when not in use.“I have listened to and heard the concerns regarding ‘safety.’ No one will have their information publicly shared by me. This is all publicly available information.” James explained that there are two types of expectations of privacy: subjective and objective. Subjective expectation of privacy is an individual’s opinion that a particular location or situation is private, and this varies from person to person. Objective expectation of privacy is a legitimate, reasonable expectation of privacy, oftentimes recognized by society and the law, but this is not necessarily the expectation of privacy that can be applied to this situation for many employees. 

“Having heard the hue and cry about releasing my legislative pay information, which is easily accessible via State of Wyoming websites, I find it to be a specious argument that names should not be included with my request,” James stated. “I believe education should be funded from the bottom up, and the vast pay differences between teachers and administrators is unacceptable. It is also my belief that the sheer numbers of administrators over teachers prevents the students from being able to have all the necessary classroom materials that then the underpaid teachers must provide.”

The state attorney general reviewed James’s request for names and confirmed that it is legal and allowable. He relayed that the Wyoming Supreme Court has already provided guidance for this particular objection raised by the Educators (concerns regarding their safety), to which James responded, “It is my opinion that the potential procurement of legal representation for this matter is an unnecessary and wasteful expenditure of taxpayer funds, as the State Supreme Court has already adjudicated a decision for public records information.” This is confirmed in the case Laramie County v. Cheyenne Newspapers (decided March 29, 2011), when the State Supreme Court determined that “The State, its agencies, and local government entities are therefore required to operate in a ‘fishbowl’ with only a few necessary exceptions…The Supreme Court has thus construed the WRPA to generally guarantee the public’s right to access to documents which will reveal the detail of operations of governmental entities, with some exceptions.” 

While the public has access to all of this information, there are some employees who, for safety reasons, cannot allow their name to be published alongside their colleagues, one of which has asked Mr. Schulte to exclude them from the final list. “If there is an individual who can legitimately say that they could be subject to harassment, abuse, or life endangerment, I could understand why that person may wish to request an alternative method of identification,” James stated. 

Ballow asserted that in order to be excluded from the list, one would need to contact their local school district and “avail themselves to the statute which says that there’s a process that needs to happen to have their names excluded.” She restated that this process must happen at a local level, not a state level. However, this process can be lengthy. “From the time that the request is made, we have 30 days to to fulfill the request. So my agency will be fulfilling that request at the end of this month.” In order to make this request, one must contact their superintendent and school district attorney so that communication could take place directly between the school district and Senator James. If an individual wishes to withhold their name, Schulte advises contacting both his office and the Wyoming Department of Education to resolve the issue. 

Overall, Ballow stressed her advocacy for government transparency, however that may look. “As an elected official and someone who works in state government, government transparency is something that’s very important to me, personally. And as an elected official, I think that the more informed that citizens have about how money is spent, how decisions are made, what decisions are made, the more that citizens can give their input. I think that makes government better.” Furthermore, Senator James believes his request to be a small favor. “In the day and age in which we live, one cannot reasonably expect to have no existence of a digital footprint. There is an abundance of personal information online. Far more, in fact, than what will be in the public records I have requested.” 

In the survey that was issued, nearly 95% (94.7) of respondents were aware the request was made. Some were unsure how this would affect them, while others were glad they could point out a certain pay gap, and others still were concerned about the invasion of privacy this would invoke. 

 Schulte relayed that there is not much we can do to hinder the request or change it in order to make omitting names easier. “I don’t know that there’s a whole lot of local control built into this. I suppose as a district, we could ask WD not to release any of the information, and we would do it from here. But that could lead to some other issues where now we’re out of sync with all these other districts, and you never know what somebody’s story might be,” he stated.

 “Certainly the Senator from Rock Springs has a right to ask for all that information. That’s his right. I would hope that the information is used in a fair way…You know, maybe the salaries come out, maybe they get published, in a couple of weeks we will be worrying about something else. There will be another topic.”