Teacher pay a matter of priorities

Published 8:34 pm Tuesday, April 29, 2014

It might be effective politics to assert that Suffolk schoolteachers can get a raise only if the City Council ponies up a couple extra million in school funding.

Politicians get easy mileage out of passing the buck on sensitive issues.

However, the Suffolk School Board would do its teachers a bigger service by prioritizing competitive pay and finding the money to raise their pay, regardless of what the council appropriates.

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There’s plenty of room to do so in an operating budget north of $50 million if the school board simply chooses to make classroom instruction its highest priority.

School board member Linda Bouchard has offered her colleagues a number of opportunities to do so — from her common-sense proposal to outsource custodial services to suggesting that the schools call in police officers when they are needed, instead of paying them to be on campus all the time.

And if low teacher pay is the school division’s biggest crisis, then direct every precious dollar available for higher wages to the teachers, instead of diluting the available funds with raises for support staff — another Bouchard suggestion that fell on deaf ears.

When my company buys a newspaper, as we are blessed occasionally to do, we immediately reorganize the staff to put a premium on the people who write the news stories, take the photographs and sell the advertising. Administrative staffing inevitably is reduced as we seek to get clerical and support work done at maximum efficiency.

Reporters and sales reps are the newspaper equivalent of classroom teachers.

A fruitful exercise after buying a newspaper is to look through 90 days of accounts-payable invoices, scrutinize every purchase, determine whether the product or service truly serves our readers, and eliminate any that don’t. Typically, we find enough savings to protect at least one job in the newsroom that would have otherwise been eliminated.

The school board needs to put its $50-million budget under a similar microscope and leave no stone unturned until the money is found to pay its teachers competitively.

A decade ago, the commonwealth of Virginia began something called the School Efficiency Review Program, “to ensure that non-instructional functions are running efficiently so that as much funding as possible goes directly into the classroom.”

Between 2005 and 2012, outside auditors identified $42 million in annual savings for 38 school divisions through “best practices in divisional administration, human resources, finance, purchasing, educational service delivery costs, special education, facilities, transportation, technology, management and food service.”

Unfortunately, the General Assembly made participation by school divisions optional. It should be mandatory.

Suffolk’s crisis in teacher retention illustrates why. The rate at which teachers are fleeing Suffolk for neighboring school divisions — 30 percent after the 2012-13 school year alone — is stunning.

It’s past time to stop the blame game and pay Suffolk’s teachers a competitive wage, regardless of what the City Council does.

Steve Stewart is publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is steve.stewart@suffolknewsherald.com.