Make teachers top fiscal priority

Published 10:22 pm Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Central to the recommendations of a new City Council/School Board task force should be prioritization of classroom instruction above all else.

Teacher salaries that rank at or near the bottom among Hampton Roads school divisions are unbefitting a vibrant, prosperous city like Suffolk, which leads the region in many important areas but falls woefully short in compensating the men and women charged with developing tomorrow’s workforce.

Unsurprisingly, Suffolk teachers are leaving in big numbers for neighboring divisions, exacerbating the problems, including low Standards of Learning scores, that have prevented a number of schools from being fully accredited by the state.

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Last week’s column explored the obligation of the City Council to prioritize education as the city’s tax base grows. As the controller of the purse strings, the council carries a heavy responsibility for lifting teacher salaries off the bottom.

The council can only provide funding, however. The School Board must spend it wisely.

The numbers suggest the School Board can do better.

Since 2008, spending on teacher salaries, adjusted for a series of small pay raises totaling 8.5 percent, has declined $8.1 million to $50.2 million annually, including a net decrease of 69 positions, according to numbers provided by the school division.

During the same six-year window, spending on central office/administrative salaries has remained essentially flat when adjusted for across-the-board raises that have been given. When those raises are included, spending has increased 8.9 percent. The number of central office/administration positions has increased from 28 to 32.

While two assistant superintendent positions have been eliminated, other positions, such as a chief of operations and directors of elementary and secondary leadership, have been created.

The trend should be the opposite.

Until the crisis of teacher flight is reversed, the School Board must spend more on teachers and less on administrators.

School Board member Linda Bouchard advocated as much during the recent budget cycle by suggesting the money allotted for pay raises be spent entirely on teachers rather than across the board. Like a lot of good ideas from Bouchard, it fell on deaf ears.

Suffolk’s problem with teacher retention is a simple matter of priorities. When the City Council makes education a bigger funding priority and the School Board makes teachers a bigger priority, one of the biggest detriments to quality public education in Suffolk — uncompetitive teacher pay — will have been removed.

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