Mayor: Changes coming to salary recommendations

Published 10:25 pm Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Significant changes are in the works to salary adjustments proposed in the city’s budget plan, Mayor Linda T. Johnson said Tuesday.

She also said she supports doing a fresh compensation study for teachers, saying it is overdue after about six years since the last one. Johnson said she and City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn met on the issue Monday with Suffolk Public Schools Superintendent Deran Whitney and School Board Chairman Michael Debranski.

The city-commissioned study comparing public employee salaries in Suffolk against 10 other Virginia locales is rubbing salt in the wounds of teachers like Wendell Foster, whose last raise was about five years ago.

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“What’s wrong with giving a teacher a little raise when you are comparing your salary with other cities and saying we are below the scale?” he said. “Why can’t you compare other teachers (as well)?”

Used to justify hefty raises proposed for senior city officials, the study by an outside consultant concluded that Suffolk salaries are below par in about 840 of the 1,290 positions surveyed.

Cuffee-Glenn cited the study in slating a 21-percent raise for herself in her budget to City Council, taking her pay from $151,410 to $183,492.

Proposed raises for other council appointees are even larger, including 22 percent for City Clerk Erika Dawley, taking her pay to $79,045; 22.77 percent for Assessor Jean Jackson (to $110,500); and 33.76 percent for City Attorney Helivi Holland (to $169,877).

City Council voted in January to direct Cuffee-Glenn to implement the study recommendations, which included $3 million in salary adjustments.

Meanwhile, Suffolk Public Schools employees like Foster, an alternative education math and science teacher at John Yeates Middle School, face possible furloughs and pink slips after Suffolk proposed giving the school district $4 million less than the $50.6 million it asked for.

Johnson indicated Tuesday that meaningful changes to the proposed adjustments will be announced at tonight’s public hearing on the city budget.

“What you are going to see is something quite different than what has been proposed,” she said.

With a bachelor’s degree and on a standard 10-month contract, Suffolk teachers earn $38,900 in their first year, the same amount in their fifth year, and $41,952 in their 10th year. Their counterparts in most of the 10 locales used in the city study earn more.

Teachers in Portsmouth, Richmond, Alexandria and Hanover County earn more than teachers in Suffolk as rookie teachers, as well as in their fifth and 10th years.

Chesterfield County teachers earn slightly more in the 10th year.

Freshman teachers earn less per year in Norfolk than in Suffolk, but more in their fifth year and $3,921 more in their 10th year, a pattern roughly repeated in Chesapeake.

Compared with Suffolk, teachers earn less in Newport News as freshmen, more in their fifth year, but slightly less again in their 10th year.

In Virginia Beach they also earn less as rookies, but more in their fifth year and $3,056 more in the 10th year.

Hampton teachers also earn less than Suffolk teachers in their first year, as well as in their 10th year, though annual pay is almost $1,000 more in their fifth year.

Foster, a 27-year veteran of teaching who has worked in Suffolk about six years, says it’s not a money issue, however, but a fairness issue.

He said it’s unfair the city isn’t giving the district enough money to make Suffolk teacher salaries equitable with the locales used to justify proposed raises for city workers.

“I’m not knocking them for giving themselves raises, but we also are due a raise,” he said. “It’s kind of dishonest.”

The cost of living has increased markedly since Suffolk teachers last received a raise, and they are also increasingly dipping into their pay for classroom supplies, according to Foster.

“Things are getting higher, when we are living on the same amount of money each month, each year,” he said. “If we were just in it for the money, many teachers would not be teaching. We’re trying to help our kids be productive citizens.”

Mayor Johnson sought to soothe those concerns. “I would certainly say there is probably a need for a compensation study for the teachers. My goal is to make sure that everyone comes out of this on common ground.”

Suffolk Public Schools Superintendent Deran Whitney said in an email it is not for him to answer how the study can be used to justify raises for certain city employees while teachers look set to be sidelined.

“I strive to make our teacher salaries competitive with surrounding divisions, not to lose teachers to other divisions, and to attract the best,” he said. “My request is for the School Board’s approved budget to be fully funded.”

The School Board’s proposed 7-percent raise includes a state-mandated 5 percent to implement the new Virginia Retirement System process and the additional 2 percent requested for all employees, which would be unlikely under the city manager’s proposed spending plan.

The school division could have phased in the 5-percent VRS hike over five years, but the School Board decided to do it all at once.

Tonight’s public hearing on the city budget begins at 7 p.m. at City Council chambers, 441 Market St.