Time to make hard choices

Published 9:12 pm Saturday, January 10, 2015

Apparently Suffolk public school teachers are underpaid.

That was the conclusion of a consultant’s study of school pay scales that compared 14 public employers, including various cities and school division across Hampton Roads, as well as Richmond Public Schools and the city. The consultant’s analysis of those comparisons reveals that teachers for Suffolk Public Schools are paid as much as 20 percent below market value for their jobs.

That sound you hear right now is the collective sigh of hundreds of current and former SPS teachers fighting the urge to say, “We told you so.”

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In fact, the city’s public school teachers and their supporters have been clamoring for significant raises for four years or more, all to no avail. The best they’ve been able to accomplish have been slight increases designed to offset the increased costs of their retirement and a small bonus last year. Aside from that, their salaries in Suffolk have been flat-lined.

City Council, which hears the majority of public complaints on the matter, blames the School Board, which council members say has chosen not to budget wisely. The School Board, on the other hand, says the blame lies with City Council for not fully funding the school budgets that have been presented.

Who’s to blame? That’s a hard question to answer categorically, as there are so many moving parts in both the school and city budgets. Furthermore, where the finger of blame points also depends in part on who’s pointing it.

One thing that’s clear, however, is that the amount of local money that goes to the school system has risen by just $5.1 million — about 10 percent — since the 2010-2011 fiscal year. That rise would have covered raises for both underpaid teachers and support personnel, but it couldn’t be earmarked for those purposes, because it was used — among other things — to pay for a laundry list of new state mandates during that period.

Could some other categories have been cut to free up the money needed for teacher raises? Possibly. But it’s unlikely that a school system trying to catch up on the salary scale for its largest group of employees would be able to do so with an increase in local participation that barely covers the increase in cost of living during that period.

This is not the first consultant’s study of teacher pay in Suffolk Public Schools. One that was completed in 2007 was never implemented. This one, however, should not be ignored. It’s time for Suffolk to make the hard choices necessary to ensure that its teachers are fairly compensated for their work.