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Stafford School Board votes to give pay raises

Stafford School Board members drew applause Monday night from an audience of teachers, bus drivers and school retirees by voting to give raises next year and to keep a popular early-retirement incentive program.

Tonight they’ll face a tougher crowd—and it’s likely that Stafford County supervisors won’t clap or cheer when they hear that those raises and retiree benefits come with a hefty price tag.

The School Board voted for a budget that asks for $19.6 million more in local money than the school division received last year.

The increase includes money for new hires required to meet special education requirements, rising health insurance and retirement costs, raises and more.

County Administrator Anthony Romanello’s proposed budget recommends giving the schools $5.2 million more, a number that includes $2.3 million in state education money.

And School Board members said last night that the increase only includes about $800,000 worth of wiggle room, since $1.8 million goes to debt services which are automatically paid by the county, $200,000 is designated toward expanding a special education program, and $100,000 will fund a new state requirement for educators to receive CPR training.

School Board members have held several work sessions over recent months and have spent most of that time tangled up in the details of giving school employees a raise next year.

Monday night, they voted for an option that would give each employee a step increase—which provides an average raise of 2.5 percent—and a 1 percent raise, which would be offset by a mandatory increase in employee contributions to the state retirement system.

This raise would cost the school division about $4.5 million.

School Board members also voted not to cut the early retirement incentive program, a trim suggested by interim Superintendent William Symons.

Retirees protested the cut, saying that the program had been offered as an incentive to stay in the county when raises were scarce.

Monday night, 13 people spoke to the School Board, asking for bigger paychecks and for the early retirement program to be saved from the chopping block.

One high school teacher told the board that his family would qualify for free and reduced lunches if not for his stipend for having a master’s degree, and his wife’s income. Others talked of long hours, increased responsibility and small paychecks.

“Every single one of us that teach do this because it’s a calling, it’s what we were born to do,” said kindergarten teacher Lori May, adding that a lack of respect and pay, coupled with rising demands, were driving teachers away.

Cindy Ward, a librarian at Dixon–Smith Middle School, said she was tired of having to come out every year and advocate for more money for schools, while living in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States.

“We the educators are at a breaking point,” she said. “Excellent young teachers and seasoned teachers alike are exiting and they have been for years.”

School Board members said that their vote signaled their respect for teachers and bus drivers but cautioned that they were unlikely to get enough money to pay for the raises.

“Please, be aware that when we take this across the street, we are not going to get the [$19 million to $20 million] increase that we ask for,” Chairwoman Nanette Kidby said. “It is simply not going to happen, but we will do the very best we can to support you and the work you do for the children.”

Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973