School board to weigh small salary increase

by Eric Ginsburg

It´s been three years since Guilford County Schools’ employees have received a raise, and Superintendent Mo Green said it is time for that to change. Green proposed a 1 percent salary increase that would cover all school employees — including bus drivers, teachers, counselors, accountants and more — except for him.

It’s been nearly 10 years since the last time a pay increase was proposed on a local level, and it was for a one-time $50 bonus under then-Superintendent Terry Grier. Green’s proposal is recurring, and would cost an estimated $4.5 million. If the school board approves the salary increase as part of its budget next month, it will go before the Guilford County Commission as part of a requested $9.8 million increase in school funding for the 2012-2013 academic year.

“Teachers are obviously the lion’s share of who we are talking about,” Chief Financial Officer Sharon Ozment said. “It is small, but it is important. In tough economic times, that [Green] is willing [to propose] an almost $4.5 million increase sends a major message.”

The 1 percent increase would translate to an additional $250 annually at the average custodian’s salary rate, $450 for teachers and $750 for assistant principals, Ozment said. Bus drivers, who are paid hourly, have a range of wages, on the lowest end receiving $11.87 an hour and $17.68 maximum after working at least 28 years.

District 5 school board member Paul Daniels, who is up for reelection, suggested modifying Green’s proposal so that employees who made over a certain amount, possibly $80,000 annually, would be excluded.

“My concern was mainly for the teachers and the bus drivers and the folks on the lower level of the scale,” Daniels said. “If there is enough money to give everyone a raise that’s great. Folks have been without a raise for three, four years now, and at some point it’s time to do something about that. It might require us to make some hard choices.”

Those hard choices could include cutting some underperforming programs, but it may be possible to save money in other ways, Daniels said, such as completing the shift to running buses on bio-diesel. He added that it was important to prevent employees’ standard of living from declining, but that $80,000 seemed like enough to live comfortably here.

“I’m not opposed to a salary increase if we can find a way to pay for it,” District 2 school board member Ed Price of High Point said. “Part of it depends on if we get that [$9.8] million from the county. I’d be grateful if we got part of it.”

Daniels and Price both said they thought the school board would overall support the increase, but that it would depend on the tradeoffs. Neither was sure how the county commission would respond, but Daniels said the school board could possibly fund the increase regardless. Board Chair Alan Duncan said he wasn’t sure what the school board would be able to do.

“I think [Mo Green]’s trying to make a very important statement that the board values the employees,” Duncan said. “Whether or not we’re able… it will be difficult and we’ll have to see. It’s important to discuss.”

Price wants to be able to pay for the increase without reducing the number of classroom teachers or increasing class size to significantly. As part of Green’s proposed budget, class size would be increased by 0.25 percent, eliminating 23 teaching positions. Ozment said it translates to $1.1 million in savings. Price said he could live with these relatively small changes.

“We’re in the third year of cutting significant amounts out of our budgets,” said Ozment, adding that funding has been flat from the county for three years. “We’re getting close to the marrow of the bone. We have tried not to displace employees. Other districts have cut hundreds or thousands of positions.”

Price said it wasn’t that higher paid employees didn’t deserve a raise, but said it would be easier to fund the increase if there was a cap.

“When you reach a certain point, that’s an adequate income for this economy,” Price said. “I bet 90 something percent of the people in this county would take a job making $80,000 plus benefits… they would jump all over that.”

The school board will hold its first work session on the budget April 24 and will host a public hearing on April 26. In early May, the board will go through the budget line by line, which Ozment estimated would take four to six hours. Price said he had only had about an hour to look over the budget so far.

Marion Johnson, a bus driver with the Greensboro Transit Authority who once drive for the school system, said she supports the pay increase for school employees including teachers and bus drivers.

“That would be a good idea, they deserve an increase because dealing with these kids nowadays, they have changed,” Johnson said, adding that students misbehave more now. “Everyone has to put up with a lot. It’s a task.”

Page High School English teacher Tyler Anderson recently graduated from UNCG and is paying off student loans.

“It feels like such a burnout when there is no increase for lasting another year,” Anderson said. “I understand it’s a very hard time, but I don’t know that that hard time should be on the backs of teachers. It just creates a very troubling cycle.”

Anderson said he, like many other teachers, buys supplies for his students while facing a rising cost of living including higher gas prices. He said it feels bad to want a raise when some employees are losing their jobs, but that teachers who have worked longer than him in particular deserved a raise.

The school board must finalize its budget by May 15 and is expected to decide on May 10, Ozment said.

“We’re talking less than 1 percent of our budget,” Daniels said. “I think we can come up with that. We’ve got $10 million in our bank account for a rainy day fund. Other people might have other priorities. Reasonable people can disagree on that.”

Price said some federally funded programs would run out of funding in a year and a half, and that recent school and jail bonds may impact the county’s decision.

“It’s easy to sit here and say ‘let’s give these people a raise,’ the hard part is figuring out how you’re going to pay for it,” Price said. “We’ve got to find a prudent way.”