Pay inequality case settled by Atlanta Public Schools

APS executive salaries before settlements

Erroll Davis, superintendent, $240,000

Steve Smith, associate superintendent, $210,000

Larry Hoskins, deputy superintendent for operations, $210,000

Chuck Burbridge, chief financial officer, $205,602

Ron Price, chief human resources officer, $198,000

Tony Hunter, chief information officer, $195,000

Bill Prescott, interim general counsel, $190,000

Karen Waldon, deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction, $165,003

Alexis Kirijan, chief strategy and development officer, $148,732

Source: Atlanta Public Schools human resources documents

How we got the story

When the Atlanta Board of Education voted April 14 to approve settlements with two of the school system’s top administrators, staff writer Mark Niesse wanted to know why. The board’s attorney, Bill Prescott, said at the meeting there was a dispute over their compensation, and the settlement would avoid potential litigation. Niesse filed open-records requests for copies of the settlements, one of which said claims for compensation were based on gender, but it didn’t provide details. A follow-up open-records request revealed a Jan. 27 memo in which Chief Human Resources Officer Ron Price notified Superintendent Erroll Davis of a “salary alignment issue” involving Deputy Superintendent Karen Waldon and Chief Strategy and Development Officer Alexis Kirijan.

Paid much less than top male executives working in Atlanta Public Schools, its two highest-ranking women recently received big raises and back pay so the school system could avoid potential lawsuits over salary inequity.

The Atlanta Board of Education unanimously approved pay increases last month to narrow the $44,833 gap in average pay between the women and men who report directly to Superintendent Erroll Davis, according to documents obtained this week by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through open records requests.

Under the agreement, Deputy Superintendent Karen Waldon’s pay rose from $165,003 to $205,000, and Chief Strategy and Development Officer Alexis Kirijan’s salary increased from $148,732 to $190,000. They also received two years of back pay worth $89,944 for Waldon and $84,100 for Kirijan.

Waldon and Kirijan had previously earned about 78 percent of the average salaries of the six men on the school system’s senior staff, a figure that mirrors the nationwide pay gap between women and men. Across the country, women’s median earnings are 77 percent of men’s, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

“We wanted to make sure we are treating all our employees equitably, and those steps are designed to do that,” said Board of Education Chairman Courtney English.

Waldon oversees Atlanta’s 105 schools and learning centers, and Kirijan is responsible for designing strategies, regulations and projects to meet the school system’s academic goals. Waldon has been with APS since August 2011, and Kirijan has been there since 2008.

The board’s written settlement agreements with Waldon and Kirijan prevented the possibility of lawsuits. The agreements include a clause requiring Waldon, Kirijan and Atlanta Public Schools not to discuss the case.

Atlanta Public Schools was aware of the disparity at least since January, when Chief Human Resources Officer Ron Price alerted Superintendent Erroll Davis of a “salary alignment issue” involving Waldon and Kirijan compared to other senior education managers who report directly to Davis.

“These positions are essential members of the senior Cabinet and the salaries of the current incumbents should be closer aligned for equity purposes,” Price wrote Jan. 27, according to his memo obtained by the AJC.

Atlanta Public Schools didn’t respond to repeated phone and email requests for comment about how the system would prevent future pay inequalities.

The pay gap is smaller in government jobs — including in public school systems — than in many private businesses, according to data from Harvard University labor economist Claudia Goldin, whose research has shown gender disparities among workers with similar occupations, education and hours.

Elementary and middle school teachers who are women, hold at least bachelor’s degrees and work full-time for the full year make about 93 percent as much money as comparable men, she said.

Wage disparities in government organizations tend to be smaller because they often have standardized pay structures, large workforces and public disclosure requirements of worker pay, said Dana Britton, director for the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University.

“Governments are much more likely to have transparent criteria for hiring and promotions. They’re more likely to be bureaucratized and not personal,” Britton said.

By comparison, the private sector discourages workers from discussing their salaries, which conceals potential discrimination, said Liz Watson, a policy attorney for the National Women’s Law Center.

“When you shine a light on what people are being paid, you make it much harder for employers to hide behind discrimination that results in women being paid unfairly,” she said.

The National Women’s Law Center supports legislation that would prohibit companies from retaliating against workers who discuss salary information. The Paycheck Fairness Act stalled last month in the U.S. Senate on a party-line 53-44 vote, with 60 votes required to end debate.

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