TROY, Mich. – If you seek financial information from a public school district – or any government agency, for that matter – be very careful how you word your open records request.

Schools are not legally required to give citizens complete information, and often will not, if you’re not precise in your request.

The Troy, Michigan school district offers a very good example.

Last fall, as part of our nationwide effort to learn more about school administrative salaries at randomly selected K-12 districts, EAGnews.org sent a public information request to the Troy district.

We asked for “any records indicating the base salary, benefits and stipends paid to all district employees who are designated as administrators, including (but not limited to) the district superintendent, all assistant superintendents, department heads, principals and assistant principals, for fiscal year 2016-17.”

The information we received looked promising, from a taxpayer standpoint.

The superintendent’s total compensation was listed as $189,756.90, which is not a great deal, compared to many superintendents around the nation. The deputy superintendent for teaching and learning’s total compensation was listed as $155,245. Again, that didn’t seem like a comparatively extravagant amount.

So just to double-check, we looked at the Troy school district’s website, to see if there was employee compensation posted, and if it matched the information we were sent.

It did not, by a long shot.

On the website, the superintendent’s total compensation was listed as $258,295, $68,539 more than the amount that was sent to us. The deputy superintendent for teaching and learning had a total compensation package worth $216,266, a full $61,021 more than the dollar figure we received.

There were similar discrepancies between the website information and the dollar figures sent to us, all the way down the list.

To a small degree, the district might be able to say that the two sets of financial information are “apples and oranges,” because we sought dollar figures for the 2016-17 fiscal year (July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017), while the website had compensation figures for the 2017 calendar year.

But they were both 12-month totals, so that doesn’t come close to explaining the huge discrepancies in total compensation.

The missing information made a very big difference.

In the document the district sent to us, the total base salary for the highest-paid 36 administrators was $4,246,528.96, for an average of $117,959.14 per employee. With a handful of benefits added in, the combined total compensation for the group came to $4,501,351.80, for an average of $125,051.44 per employee.

That, in and of itself, is great deal of money.

But when you look at the salary document posted on the school website, the top 36 administrators’ combined average total compensation came to $175,416.68.

That’s full $50,365.24 more than the average compensation we were prepared to report to the public, based on the information provided to us.

The biggest difference came in two forms of benefits that the school decided not to share with us – the districts’ pension contribution on behalf of each employee (an average of $31,026.22 per employee) and health insurance (an average of $11,690.30 per employee).

The Troy school district has a responsibility to the public to be open about this type of information.