How Much Is Enough?

How Much Is Enough?

Schools Staff React to 4 Percent Proposal

Mel Riddile, principal at Stuart High School in Falls Church, knows how difficult it can be to recruit and retain staff at his school. For a number of years, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) has not remained competitive with private industry.

But it is not teachers Riddile is losing, it is support staff such as clerical workers and technology experts who are taking jobs elsewhere. He said typically it depends on the job market, but he has seen cases where a person gained the needed skills with the school system and then took a six-figure job in the private sector.

"I haven't hired anybody this year. Last year was difficult," Riddile said. "The hours are pretty good. But when someone is raising a family or going to college, they have to ask, 'Is it worth it?'"

In his proposed FY ‘03 budget, Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech has included $55 million for employee step and compensation adjustments — including cost of living (COLA) — which equates to a total 4.6-percent raise over last year and $22.5 million for employee benefits such as health insurance and retirement. In all, Domenech is proposing a $1.6 billion budget, a $136 million increase over last year.

Is it enough to keep a number of the 20,976 employees from seeking higher pay elsewhere? The answer depends on who is doing the talking.

<mh>Share the Wealth

<bt>Riddile said the teachers tend to make more money than the other professionals do at his school.

In fact, a beginning teacher with no experience and a bachelor's degree starts with the school system at $34,069 for a 193-day contract. After attending a three-day new-teacher orientation, that figure is bumped to $34,599, and over the course of that teacher's career, it can top out at $76,000, if the teacher gains a doctorate.

By comparison, a beginning custodian with a 12-month contract starts at $19,183 and can top out at $37,185 as a Custodian III, and an administrative assistant, or office staff, at the high-school level receives a starting salary of $30,798 and tops out at $53,027 over the life of the person's career. The superintendent's base salary is $217,000 per year, with the possibility of bonuses based on meeting performance goals. In January, the School Board approved a $24,000 bonus for the superintendent.

"The highest paid employee is the superintendent, and he negotiates his contract," said Tom Bowen, with the Department of Human Resources. "The lowest paid is generally going to be custodial staff."

The superintendent's contract is a sore spot with some teachers, said Richard Baumgartner, president of Fairfax Education Association (FEA), a 6,500-member teacher and support personnel organization. Virginia law prevents teachers from forming a union. Baumgartner is also an elementary-school reading specialist on a two-year leave of absence to fulfill his duties as FEA's elected president. He will return to the classroom in September.

"It's hard to justify a 2-percent COLA when the superintendent got a 11- percent bonus," Baumgartner said. "He's an executive of a $1 billion company, and his employees should reap some of the rewards too. The superintendent can negotiate his contract, which is nice for him, but we can't."

Baumgartner said FEA members need at least an 11-percent increase but would have liked to have seen a 5-percent raise. He also believes the money is available, if anyone is willing to look for it.

"It's a question of priorities," Baumgartner said. "The budget includes $6.7 million for new Project Excel schools. I have a problem with creating new programs. That money should be returned to the employees."

<mh>Best Offer

<bt>"We asked for a 5-percent COLA, but that was five months ago," said Steven Eddy, president of the 1,000-member Fairfax County School Board Employee Association, another employee group. Eddy is also an accounting technician in the Department of Special Projects. "We support no less than 2 percent, but anything more is a fantasy. The figures just don't support it."

Eddy said 80 to 85 percent of the association's members did not even expect a cost of living increase, given the current economic downturn, and instead were more concerned with keeping their jobs amid what he calls “unfounded rumors of lay-offs.”

Eddy also said it's not easy to compare Fairfax County's salaries with those of other jurisdictions because the pay structure is not the same, including the length of teachers’ contracts. Even so, Bowen said the Human Resources Department does periodically call around to get comparisons.

Bowen said, for example, in the 2001-02 school year a beginning teacher with no experience and a bachelor's degree in Montgomery County received $35,087 to start. The same teacher got $32,945 in Loudoun County, $34,297 in Arlington County and $33,115 in Prince William County.

"Nobody has made any firm decisions on what they will be giving in 2002-03," Bowen said.

Eddy said regardless of what the final salary numbers may be, the county still faces a possible shortage in custodial staff, since many employees are moving outside of the county where it can be cheaper to live. The custodial staff has yet to receive an overall salary adjustment to close the gap between school staff and its county counterparts, said Eddy. Last summer the heating and air-conditioning maintenance staff received an adjustment.

"Currently, custodial, office staff and transportation staff are getting offers. They are getting offers from Loudoun County, Prince William and even Washington, D.C. They may be similar offers in terms of pay, but it's less travel time," Eddy said. "That's why it's important for Fairfax County to recognize and stay competitive."

Riddile said he doesn't think the school system will ever be in a situation to lure people away from private industry and that at some point FCPS will have to stop relying on its name.

"We used to be on top of the heap, the best salaries, up-to-date facilities. We're not there anymore. We can't live on our reputation," Riddile said. "We can't do more with less. I don't understand how we're having a budget problem in the wealthiest community in the country. It sends a mixed message. We're one of the top 10 on per capita income. We have the lowest taxes, and we're at the bottom five in per student spending. It's hurting recruiting both for professionals and paraprofessional positions."

<mh>What's Next?

<bt>A public hearing on the budget took place Tuesday, Jan. 29, at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church. The advertised budget is expected to be adopted Feb. 7 and presented to the county Board of Supervisors April 8, followed by a another round of public hearings and work sessions. A final budget is expected to be adopted May 23.