Pay study raises a quandary

Published 9:35 pm Monday, January 12, 2015

There was nothing shocking or even mildly surprising about the pay study Suffolk Public Schools made public last week.

The upshot was that, compared with the market, the vast majority of teachers and most other district employees are underpaid, many of them severely underpaid.

Florida-based consultant Evergreen Solutions calculated a cost of more than $4.7 million per year to solve the problem. They also had three recommendations that would be cost-neutral to implement.

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There’s a justifiable argument — and many in the school system have made it — that the city of Suffolk hasn’t been providing adequate funding to the school district for the school district to adequately pay its staff.

And we know all about what has resulted from this: experienced teachers leaving Suffolk for better opportunity elsewhere; low morale among those that have clung on here; poorer student performance than what would be possible without the talent drain and low morale; more schools missing full accreditation; Suffolk not looking like such a great place to raise a family and a lot of families looking for a place elsewhere in Hampton Roads to do just that.

There was discussion at last week’s School Board meeting about how the recommendations from the pay study could be put into action. Some members essentially said, “Let’s ask the city to foot the entire bill. They funded most of the study — it’s their responsibility.”

Others argued the city should first be asked to fund the costliest and what they said was the most important recommendation: revamping the teacher pay scale, at a cost of $3.89 million. The district might be able to fund the other cost-attached recommendations itself by making some changes to the district budget.

Another argument that emerged last week was to follow Evergreen’s suggested phase-in approach, which in the first year includes the teacher raises plus re-grading 11 support classifications that were found to be 20 percent or more below the market. That would cost the city close to $4 million.

School district staff could come away from the upcoming budget process with a lot more dignity and self-respect than they have for a long time because of an apparently improving economy; a new-look City Council; and an independent, city-paid salary study apparently vindicating their position on pay raises.

Phasing in the study’s recommendations, starting with the teachers, at least, is a likely scenario.

Thereafter, the risk would be that with the teachers looked after, the study no longer hot off the press and a whole host of new demands on local tax dollars, staff in those 11 support classifications that are severely underpaid, along with 38 support classifications that are paid 10 to 20 percent below the market, would be forgotten in the years to come.

If city and school district leaders phase in the recommendations, those left out in the first year need to be assured they won’t be forgotten in the following year.