Salary costs have jumped in Louisiana's education department, even as the number of full-time employees dropped, and the number of people drawing six-figure paychecks has more than doubled in the two years since Paul Pastorek took charge of the agency.
Payroll at the Department of Education grew by $8 million _ 21 percent _ after Pastorek became state superintendent of education in 2007, an Associated Press review of salary data shows.
Pastorek says the pay is needed to attract and keep the best talent. But with huge state budget shortfalls predicted for several years, the salary boosts have irked some lawmakers, already bristling about Pastorek's own hefty pay increases.
"I just don't, along with many of my colleagues, feel like we can put a lot of money into administration so this guy can go out and pay big salaries and not (put the money) into the classroom for the kids," said state Rep. Jim Fannin, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
A New Orleans lawyer and former general counsel for NASA, Pastorek had been on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for eight years when he was named superintendent in March 2007. He replaced Cecil Picard, who died after a decade in the post.
Salaries have grown markedly since then.
Annual payroll under Picard in January 2007 totaled $39.5 million, compared to $47.7 million this year, an AP review of data shows.
"It's been about getting the best human capital to do the job," Pastorek said.
Eighteen top Pastorek deputies draw six-figure salaries, compared to seven under Picard. Two of the high-paying positions under Pastorek have gone to former lawmakers.
A handful of Pastorek's highest-paid workers have the same job titles they held under Picard but receive paychecks $24,000 to $30,000 larger.
The department's median salary is $60,902, a growth of $11,170 from Picard's final month in office.
The $210,000 salary for Pastorek's deputy superintendent, Ollie Tyler, nearly matches the base pay Picard received as superintendent, though Picard also had a car and housing allowance.
Fannin, D-Jonesboro, said while salaries have risen in nearly all state agencies, growth in the education department is larger. Sen. Ben Nevers, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said lawmakers expect to see tangible results to justify the steep salary hikes.
"I do believe that we need to understand what we're getting for the dollars that we're expending, especially for people in the six-figure category," said Nevers, D-Bogalusa.
Pastorek's own salary has raised complaints. He gets a $430,000 compensation package, compared to the $265,000 paid to Picard when housing and car allowances are included.
The payroll growth comes even as Pastorek has laid off workers and cut vacant jobs. A spokeswoman said the department _ including the special schools it oversees, like the schools for blind and deaf students _ has 739 full-time positions, a drop of 129 jobs from the first full budget year Pastorek was superintendent.
That doesn't include the state-run Recovery School District, which Pastorek oversees and which also has been criticized for its salaries.
Pastorek said many of the raises came during a salary review done when he took office, including $3.6 million tied to a boost in the pay grade for a class of workers called "education program consultants."
Those workers evaluate programs, ensure compliance with requirements governing federal education spending and craft policy. Pastorek said similar jobs often paid better in school districts, making it difficult to hire people or keep them.
Pastorek said other salaries were bumped up because the jobs hadn't had pay raises for some time or because his expectations had risen for the employees. In some instances, he said he was trying to hold onto administrators he worried might leave.
Pastorek said has added new people to focus on reading and math initiatives, high school redesign work and enhanced training efforts with principals and teachers. And he noted many of those initiatives are receiving national praise.
"We've attracted high quality people who are doing an excellent job of meeting the objectives we have set. I'm certainly not going to want to look at cutting back on that," Pastorek said.
Keith Guice, president of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said BESE doesn't have authority over personnel decisions besides hiring the superintendent, evaluating him and setting his salary.
But he said, "I am concerned that BESE and the state Department of Education keep in mind that local school systems are being asked to educate children with less money and that we should be mindful of how we spend ours."
Fannin and Nevers said they expect lawmakers to more closely scrutinize the department's administrative salaries as they try to find ways to cut costs and close a state government budget gap estimated to be nearly $1 billion next year. Fannin said he wants money stripped from bureaucracy and moved into the funding formula for public school districts.
Pastorek said he is cutting another 50 positions in his agency through retirement packages or layoffs, which will shrink his salary costs. Pastorek himself rejected a $22,000 pay raise earlier this year, saying it would be inappropriate in times of a thin state budget.
"We're going to make decisions that are in the best interest of getting our jobs done and concurrent with the difficult budget times," he said. "I'm very sensitive to the budget problems."