Teacher demands change

Published 12:31 am Sunday, April 27, 2014

Inside his John Yeates Middle School classroom, math teacher Tim Kubinak ponders the future. Will he stay or will he go? The city’s elected officials, with their fingers on the purse strings, hold the answer, he says. (MATTHEW A. WARD/SUFFOLK NEWS-HERALD)

Inside his John Yeates Middle School classroom, math teacher Tim Kubinak ponders the future. Will he stay or will he go? The city’s elected officials, with their fingers on the purse strings, hold the answer, he says. (MATTHEW A. WARD/SUFFOLK NEWS-HERALD)

Stagnant salaries souring Suffolk teachers

A John Yeates Middle School math teacher’s pay stubs during the past six years tell a story of disappointment that is shared by many educators other frontline public employees in Suffolk.

In June 2009, Tim Kubinak took home $1,076.90 for two weeks’ work. Five years later in 2013, it was only $25 more.

One of Kubinak’s most recent pay stubs shows $1119.12 in take-home pay. But had he not dropped his Suffolk Public Schools’ health insurance and gone on his wife’s plan, his paycheck would have reflected almost $60 less than he was earning in 2009, he said.

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“The school district has invested in me,” said Kubinak, the father of two children under 4. “I’ve spent 10 years here, and they have allowed me to grow as an educator. I want to repay that, (but) several of my colleagues here have expressed interest in seeking employment elsewhere, due to the pay situation. I’m included in that.”

Though his staying loyal to Suffolk Public Schools is a priority, Kubinak said, “You have to keep your options on the table when you are trying to feed a family and trying to pay the bills.”

Many of Kubinak’s colleagues with the district have already left for what they see as greener pastures. Comparing 2008 and 2013 teacher pay scales for the five South Hampton Roads cities, it’s not hard to fathom why.

Basic pay for Suffolk teachers with 10 years’ experience has rewound more than 7 percent in that time, compared to just over 3.5 percent in Virginia Beach and a little more than 1.2 percent in Chesapeake.

In Norfolk and Portsmouth, meanwhile, salaries have grown by 1.8 and about 9.2 percent, respectively.

A rookie Portsmouth teacher now earns more than a Suffolk teacher with 10 years in the classroom.

The story is much the same up and down the pay scale.

Amid the present budget battle between the school division and the city, and during those of recent previous years, Suffolk teachers have argued they are no longer receiving step increases.

In fact, they have been progressing a step on the pay scale each year, but the amounts corresponding to those pay-scale steps have been almost consistently wound back, leaving them treading water.

A teacher with a decade of experience would gross $44,873 this year if the scale were unchanged from 2008. Under the current scale he earns just $41,671.

Regression occurs each year a raise is not given, according to Wendy Forsman, the district’s finance director.

The scale’s first three steps have had the same beginning salary — $38,900 — since 2008, she noted in an email, and the scale was tweaked in fiscal 2013 to “provide a small differential” between steps 4, 5 and 6.

“When we go several years without a raise, the Year-6 teacher becomes a Year-7 teacher with the same pay, then a Year-8 with the same pay and so on, until a year that we are able to get a raise,” she said.

“We have only given cost of living raises over the past two years due to the small amount of raise given and the time between increases, this ensures that everyone gets the same amount as the percentage between steps varies,” she added.

Forsman noted that a recent Virginia Education Association study showed that, on average, the state’s teachers are only making 1 percent more than they were five years ago.

Earlier this month, Kubinak attended a public hearing on the city’s proposed budget, which offers 1.5-percent bonuses to school and city employees instead of the 3-percent raises for full-time teachers that the School Board had requested.

He had intended to get up and address the chamber, but instead remained seated, deciding to submit a letter to the editor that drew a strong response when published in the Suffolk News-Herald.

Hoping for a sea of teachers at the hearing, Kubinak was disappointed that so few — five including himself, he said — showed up. He also wasn’t exactly buoyed to see only one School Board member, Chairman Michael Debranski.

“I chose not to speak, because I felt it would have been hopeless,” Kubinak said.

There were more public safety employees at the hearing than teachers, and city records show they face much the same predicament as teachers.

Mid-level pay for both a Police Officer II and Firefighter II, for instance, has remained at $45,903 between 2008 and 2013. For Firefighter/Medic II and Police Sergeant, it’s been frozen at $57,995 and $65,237, respectively.

“I hope that the conversation on fair pay for teachers and public safety (employees) continues until Election Day,” Kubinak said.

“How often do we forget this from May until November? We forget all the time. We need to keep the discussion going. We have a City Council that is not mindful of public education, and I believe that needs to change.”

Responding to the common argument that short-funding the school division causes stagnant pay and teacher flight, city spokeswoman Diana Klink stated council’s appropriation for Suffolk Public Schools has increased from $34.23 million in 2005 to $50.18 million in 2014.

In addition to those appropriations, she added, city support of schools through capital projects — “replacing schools, school renovation projects, hazardous materials management, etc.” — has been $61.8 million during the past decade.

Increasing health care costs have also hit teacher salaries, including the doubling of some co-pays and out-of-pocket maximums. And a requirement for school divisions to cover their workers for increased retirement costs, which Suffolk Public Schools is phasing in at 1 percent annually, has further hindered administrators in their desire to increase salaries.

Plus, school district employees are now required to work for 20 years before qualifying for retirement benefits — twice as long as before — which Forsman says saved $600,000.

For a growing number of teachers, it all adds up to a strong reason to leave. But Kubinak, for now, is withstanding the pressure.

“I want to continue to do what I feel is the most honorable work that I could do,” he said.