School employees express frustration at loss in real income

Charlie Koenig - Posted on Mar 11, 2011 - 11:13 AM

Faced with a fourth consecutive year with no raise or step increase, as well as a steady drop in take-home pay as result of rising health insurance costs, Mathews County Schools employees expressed their growing frustration with the situation and what some perceive as a lack of support from the school board.

A standing-room-only crowd filled the Mathews High School media center on Wednesday evening for a public hearing on the division’s 2011-2012 budget.

The proposed budget currently stands at $12,375,519, with the county asked to contribute $6.838 million, an increase of $323,014 over the current appropriation.

“We have been confused and hurt by the apparent policy to request level funding from the board of supervisors,” said Mathews High School math teacher Phillip Sanderson, speaking on behalf of the newly formed Friends of Mathews Schools. The group is made up of division employees and members of the community.

Many of those in attendance at Wednesday’s public hearing were in the same room six nights before, when the school board held a work session on the draft budget.

“Those of us who attended the school board meeting last Thursday night left very disappointed,” Sanderson said. “We feel that the school board, as our representative to the Mathews Board of Supervisors, should have advocated for a step increase and cost of living increase for all employees.”

Sanderson asked that the school board abide by the division’s salary scale, which gives employees a step increase for each year of experience. “We feel that we should not be required to negotiate for this step increase,” he said, “it should be automatic.”

Teachers and other school employees are not merely treading water, Sanderson said, but are sinking further and further as a result of health insurance hikes.

He produced a graph that showed the loss in real income for employees on the division’s health insurance. “For those employees on the family plan, I have calculated that, for the past three years, ‘level funding’ has resulted in a loss of wages of $473.35 per month, which becomes $5,680.20 per year, or a loss of $17,040.60 over three years,” he said.

Sanderson suggested that, instead of hiring a new employee when a vacancy occurs, the division should consider taking the money saved and distributing it among the employees in the form of a step increase. When an employee in a critical area leaves, he said, the school board should first consider moving a current employee from a non-critical area to fill that position.

“I’ve been told that over the past few years, there have been eight positions that have not been replaced. Why have the current employees become the last on the list of priorities to receive the benefits of those savings?” Sanderson asked.

School board members and others in the community have publicly acknowledged the work that the division’s employees do in the county, work that often goes above and beyond what they are contracted to perform. While Sanderson said he appreciates the thanks and gratitude, “to say that you support our schools, without supporting them financially, seems somewhat hollow.”

Sara Mitchem, administrative assistant at Thomas Hunter Middle School, spoke about the problems she faces with making ends meet in the face of rising insurance costs. Mitchem, who called herself “a single mother, not by choice,” is the widow of Mathews supervisor Kevin Mitchem, who died in 2009.

She recently saw her individual insurance plan jump from $60.60 a month to $117.92 a month, forcing her to accept lesser coverage, which still represented an increase in premiums. She said that she cannot afford the school division’s family plan, so she bought her children insurance elsewhere.

Mitchem said that she knows the school board cannot fix the health care crisis, but said it needs to negotiate better rates for the employees who are being asked to do more with less. “You need to know, employee morale is low,” she said, adding “I know your job is not easy.”

English, special education and CTE instructor Kevin Hogge, who joined the MHS staff in 2005, spoke about the work that teachers do behind the scenes with little recognition “for one purpose—the advancement of learning and the realization of student potential.

“There are teachers in our division who sponsor clubs and organizations, and who spend hours and hours in preparation for the clubs’ events, without pay or the expectation thereof,” he said. He listed just a few examples of the extra work they perform, from keeping the clock at basketball games to reading recording books and burning them onto CDs for students—all of which saves the division money.

“I certainly do not point these things out to impress you or to affect sympathy,” he said. “I bring these more to the attention of those who would have the gall to call teachers money-hungry, overpaid, lazy, complaint-oriented or unoriginal.”

MHS special education teacher Melissa Seidl said that she is feeling “hurt, saddened, frustrated and angry” by the current situation and the board’s seeming unwillingness to fight for teachers.

She challenged the assumption that an additional $50,000 was needed in technology to guarantee student success. “I don’t see a computer in front of the classroom,” she said, but instead a teacher with a computer.

She said it is becoming increasingly difficult to make the monthly mortgage payment. She has already cut her home internet service and cable TV and she and her husband share a cell phone. What’s next to cut?, she asked. Seidl said that she is only asking the school board to honor the contract she signed.

David Davis of Onemo, conceded that teachers are “doing a whole lot with very little.” He encouraged the school board to look at innovative ways to find a way to give teachers a step increase. He suggested looking at having administrators refuse workman’s compensation coverage, which is something he said he did as a private school administrator.

He also forwarded a suggestion from DeWitt Edwards of Gwynn’s Island, who could not attend, that the board consider looking elsewhere for water testing services to save a few thousand dollars.

Additionally, Davis suggested that the PTA be tapped as a source for needs such as technology. “They are a fantastic resource for fundraising,” he said, and if they were able to come up with the $50,000 for computers, that money could then be passed on to the faculty.

The school division, he said, like others across the nation, are reaching a point where they will be forced to perform something akin to jury nullification—rejecting the unfunded mandates from the federal and state governments that have placed an undue burden on localities such as Mathews.

Davis urged the Mathews school board members to “link arms, talk to other school boards” and oppose some of the testing and reporting requirements that are not funded.

Judy Rowe of Gwynn, a county resident for the past 45 years and a retired educator with 30 years experience with Mathews schools, likened the state Department of Education to a schoolyard bully who continues to demand money from the localities, in the form of unfunded mandates. “They’ve eaten our lunch,” she said. “Everybody is scared of the Department of Education.

“Stop the bullying,” she said. “Please find a way to deal with the bully in Richmond.”

Kathy Perdue of Port Haywood, said that the faculty and staff at Mathews have done far more than was required of them in the education of her son, as well as every other child who comes into the division.

“Joey’s teachers were just as excited and proud (about his accomplishments) as his dad and I,” she said. “The point was they were there because they care … (and now) I feel we need to stand behind them.” She said there are other options the school board can examine to provide for the teachers, such as instituting a four-day school week.

Amy Bohannon-Stewart, an eighth grade science teacher, parent and president of the Mathews Education Association, said that she is saddened by the negative comments she has seen in recent letters to the editor disparaging teachers. “Our morale is down,” she said.

The school division, she said, has lost good teachers, especially in math and science, because of the pay in Mathews. At the same time, teachers are taking on more tasks because of the staff reductions. “When too much is asked of us, we steal time from our families,” she said.

She asked if there was some way that the school division could consider “non-monetary compensation” such as extra personal days, as a way to increase morale.

Bill French suggested there may be some areas where budget cuts could be made. He pointed to the large number of teacher aides in Mathews, and asked if the school board could make cuts there to give the teachers a step on the salary scale.

Superintendent of Schools David J. Holleran replied that the number of teacher aides could be reduced, but the division made a decision at the start of the budget crisis to preserve jobs wherever possible. Most of the teacher aides, he said, are at Lee-Jackson Elementary School, where they provide one-on-one attention in reading groups and other instruction.

“One of the reasons we do so well (in MHS graduation levels, dropout rates and elsewhere) … they get a strong foundation at Lee-Jackson,” Holleran said. “It keeps the kids from falling through the cracks,” said school board Ginger Richards.

School board vice chairman Jen Little took issue with the attempt to compare Mathews with other divisions, in terms of staffing. “It’s irrelevant to me what other localities are doing,” she said. “Mathews is performing at such a high level.”

Mary Bligiotis, a special education teacher assistant at Lee-Jackson Elementary School, provided another reason for the teacher aides. With teachers out sick, Bligiotis and other assistants are often called upon to serve as substitute teachers.

“We hear you. We do,” Little said at the conclusion of the public hearing portion of the meeting. “We are all very appreciative of the work that you do.”

“This is a fantastic turnout by the employees of the school system and we appreciate it,” school board member Bill Johnson said. The same people need to turn out and speak when county supervisors hold their budget hearing.

Johnson said that the school board has worked tirelessly with state and federal officials to get them to change their minds on mandates and funding.

But as far as including step increases or pay raises in the budget, Johnson said that it is something that Mathews cannot afford at the present time. “It is the financial reality of our times,” he said.

He glanced around the room and said that, in order to give raises to some employees, others would have to be let go. “Who do we fire?” he asked. The only other way would be through a tax increase, and he believes the money just isn’t there.

“I suspect their tax revenue numbers are interesting,” he said of the county. “These are incredibly hard times,” he said. “Everybody on the street is getting hammered.” He said it is an eye-opening experience to stop by the circuit court office and, looking in the box where deeds and deeds of trust are usually kept, see only tax levies.

“There’s no doubt that employees need some help,” chairman John Persinger said. “At this point, I don’t know if help is available.”

Little suggested the school board draft a letter to accompany the budget spelling out the two big employee concerns brought up at the public hearing—the lack of any pay raise or step increase over the past three years, and the skyrocketing cost of health insurance. Perhaps, she said, there is some way that the county could provide some health insurance relief, both for its own employees and school personnel.

“I don’t personally see the harm in sending a letter,” Little said. “They need at least that.”

The school board will take up the 2011-2012 budget when it meets at 6 o’clock Tuesday in the MHS media center.