Free Lance-Star reporter Amy Umble covers Stafford County schools and other education issues
Stafford teachers make the case for more pay
With a cracking voice, teacher Amy Wescoat announced her resignation at the Stafford Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday night.
Wescoat said she loved teaching, but that she could no longer afford to teach in Stafford County.
Throughout the night, teacher after teacher spoke with the same message: Stafford doesn’t pay its teachers enough. And that lack of pay is causing the school division to hemorrhage quality educators.
More than 250 school supporters showed up at the supervisors meeting Tuesday night. This was a bigger crowd than at last year’s public hearing on the budget. That hearing is still a few weeks off; it’s scheduled for April 9. Supervisors first vote on an advertised tax rate. They were scheduled to vote on that rate Tuesday night but have pushed that off until March 26. Once a tax rate is advertised, supervisors can vote on a lower rate but not a higher one.
Supervisors have said it would be unlikely to have $18 million more for the schools without raising taxes. A penny on the real estate tax usually nets about $1.4 million for the county, so it would take a pretty steep tax hike to net $18 million.
Before the public comment period of Tuesday night’s meeting, the School Board presented a defense of its budget and increased requests. Most of the presentation centered on the raises, which account for about $12 million of the request. School Board members said that they need to give raises in order to keep qualified teachers in the school division.
School Board Chairwoman Stephanie Johnson told supervisors that in 2009, the school division lost 118 employees. And in 2012, the schools lost 239 employees.
“We don’t really feel we can continue on that trend,” she said.
Teachers and other school supporters were advocating for the School Board’s request for an additional $18 million in county money.
The raises in the School Board budget include a step increase, a 6-percent raise and a 2-percent raise.
A large portion of the 6-percent raise would be offset by increased contributions to the Virginia Retirement System. A step increase gives the average Stafford schools employee a 2.5-percent bump in pay.
Steps refer to the salary scales, and typically, each step represents a year of service. So someone who has taught for six years would be on the sixth step. But as the economy has tanked, the school division has sometimes not given step increases. Right now, school employees are two steps behind–so that six-year teacher is now on the fourth step. If school employees don’t get a step increase this year, they will be three steps behind on the scales.
Tuesday night, teachers said that staying stagnant on the scales didn’t just represent less pay; it also represented broken promises.
Teacher Ryan Middleton told supervisors that he is teaching kids to grow up to be responsible citizens and people who understand the value of a promise.
“I teach kids things that can’t be evaluated on a multiple choice test,” Middleton said.
But he said that supervisors haven’t been setting good examples for those students by not providing the money needed to give step increases.
Other speakers, however, said that there are people who aren’t facing a lack of raises but a steep cut in pay. Several federal workers and their spouses talked about preparing their family budgets for a fast-approaching 20-percent cut in pay because of sequestration. Some of those people said that they could lose their homes, and said that a tax hike would make it even harder to balance their personal budgets.
Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Stimpson said that budget discussions aren’t a matter of whether teachers deserve raises but a talk on how the schools could better use the money they have and on whether raising taxes is a good idea.
At a meeting two weeks ago, Stimpson said that the only way to give the schools $18 million more is to raise taxes or to drastically cut county services such as fire and rescue.
In the past, the two boards have had an adversarial relationship. Supervisors and School Board members now treat each other cordially, but an underlying tension over money remains obvious.
Supervisor Gary Snellings grilled Johnson about the schools’ budget process this year. The School Board approved a budget without seeing the complete document–which can be hundreds and hundreds of pages.
“How could you scrub that budget without ever seeing it?” he asked. At a previous meeting, Snellings said he regretted taking away categorical funding, where supervisors divvy money into categories instead of just approving a lump sum for schools.
Stimpson told the School Board, “You guys, you didn’t have the budget before you voted on it, you had the budget after you voted on it.”
She said that when the county prepares a budget, other departments don’t start out by listing cost increases and then asking for more money. She said that, for example, if parks and recreation faced $250,000 in increased personnel costs, the department head would instead look for other ways to save that money.
Supervisors have given the School Board a list of questions, covering the budget process, the health benefits fund, teacher turnover, the penalties for not meeting federal special education requirements and administrative costs. Next, the School Board members and the supervisors will have a special meeting to explore these issues.