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Powhatan School Board looks at compensation issues

Powhatan School Board looks at compensation issues

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POWHATAN – Employee compensation remains a huge focus for the Powhatan County School Board as it delves into all aspects of taking care of its employees.

During the board’s meeting on Tuesday, April 13, compensation in the various forms it takes took up a great deal of time in discussion as members try to decide the best ways forward.

During the meeting, the board discussed a variety of topics, including salary compression, raises for the next school year, retirement benefits, health insurance rates, and bonuses to thank employees for their outstanding service during the pandemic year.

Dr. Eric Jones, superintendent, led most of the discussions, the majority of which the board has shown they still have more questions to be answered before they will move forward.

Salary compression

Salary compression and teacher pay scales were once again a hot topic among board members as they weigh what can be addressed in the upcoming budget and what areas will take longer to find the right solution.

The school board members received a breakdown of the teacher salary scales from their first year up to 35 years, what percentage staff proposed to increase each step on the scale, and the resulting salary amount for the fiscal year (FY) 2021-2022 school year.

All of the salary steps increased by a minimum of 5%, which is the proposed increase for county and school employees across the board this year.

However, the school board also decided to put money toward targeted increases this year. The issues was raised because of compression among the longest-serving teachers, specifically those in steps 22 and above, whose position was being paid more than the same position with similar years of experience in FY 2009.

But while the scale Jones presented does address those longer serving pay scales (steps 28 to 35 each receive between about 7% to 8.7% increases), every step except the first year saw some increase over 5%. And a few teachers pointed out during public comment that there are teachers in the range of steps 11 to 19 that would see a higher percentage raise than steps 22 to 27.

Jones explained the targeted increases at the lower steps as a way to prevent compression from happening again in a few years.

“It is just an attempt to try to fix the scale so that it is a logical scale that goes up by incremental amounts that make sense, that you can justify, and that get rid of compression in the future,” he said.

Chairwoman Kim Hymel, who represents District 5, was dissatisfied with this proposition, saying more needed to be done to address the compression issue with the longest-serving teachers. If the division really wants to fix its problems, it has stop doing the things the way it has always done, she said.

One solution she proposed was not giving a straight 5% raise to all employees but instead focusing on teachers with a higher raise and other employees possibly getting 1% to 2% raises. She specifically said positions that make more than $100,000 should not get the same raise percentage as employees making less.

There was little immediate support for these proposals, but Susan Smith, District 2, and Joe Walters, District 4, did agree in a consensus to have Jones bring back data on what it will take to address the higher steps of teachers more and what would have to be cut to achieve that. Jones pointed out that the board of supervisors has already agreed (but not formally voted on) a decision to lower the county transfer to the school division by $102,800.

Rick Cole, District 1, said that regardless of the percentages, every teacher on the scale under the plan proposed by staff would receive a significant pay increase. Based on the current salaries and the percentage increase each step would receive, teacher salaries under the staff proposal would be going up anywhere from about $2,200 to $5,500, according to a pay scale comparison staff provided.

“I am excited and pleased,” Cole said. “This is the biggest raise that we have given in this county in my memory, and I’ve been here a long doggone time.”

No formal vote or decision was made on this issue beyond asking for more information.

Retiree health insurance

For several weeks, the school board has been discussing the issue of a generous retirement benefit the division offers to those employees who retire before age 65 and thus are not eligible for Medicare. The division pays anywhere from 32% to 74% of retirees’ health insurance supplements, depending on which plan they are using.

The division currently has 44 retirees using this benefit at a cost of $327,528 each year. However, this fluctuates as current employees retire and begin using the benefit or current retirees become eligible for Medicare.

This benefit has gotten a good deal of attention lately, especially as the school board examines the benefits of current employees and how they compare with Powhatan County employees as well as school employees in other localities.

Jones gave a brief presentation on this issue, discussing some of the feedback he has heard from the board on how they might tighten up or eventually phase out the program. He stressed that initial language he proposed related to the benefit is based on policies in other localities and that the Powhatan school board members have the ultimate decision on how they want to structure the plan moving forward.

The board had a lengthy discussion meeting but also recognized how much there is still to consider before they make any changes. They ultimately decided to have a workshop devoted entirely to this topic at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, April 27 at the Pocahontas Landmark Center.

Several employees spoke during the public comment period asking to preserve the benefit and to look closely at the policy recommendation. They brought up issues such as the use of the word consecutive, which could preclude some educators who have taken a break in their service; comparing benefits with other localities unevenly; and talking about how these discussions are impacting morale.

During the board discussion, several topics were discussed for consideration: changing the minimum eligibility for the benefit from five years of service to 10 or 15 years; looking at a tiered system based on years of service that uses set amounts instead of percentages; setting a maximum benefit or minimum age to enter the program; talk about the definition of “grandfathering” and who will be allowed to enter the program; setting a clear understanding about the future of the program since the current board can only control it while still in office; and making sure both current employees and retirees using the program have plenty of warning before any changes are made.

FY 2021 employee bonus

As a new discussion item, Jones recommended a proposal to provide a 2% bonus for employees during this fiscal year to compensate them for exceeding expectations during the extraordinary working conditions over the last 12 months.

Jones recommended the school board consider a 2% bonus for all employees this spring. The total cost to provide the bonus would be $580,966. The proposal laid out that 50% of the bonus could be funded by the division’s FY 2021 Operating Budget and 50% by federal stimulus dollars. Jones said the division has not been notified what PCPS will be awarded through the American Rescue Plan yet, but staff is confident that it will be sufficient to fund this portion of the bonus.

The proposal immediately saw push back, with Smith instead saying she would prefer to have a set amount for full-time employees and another number for part-time employees.

“Every one of these people showed up to do their work every day that they weren’t ill, so I think I would rather not do a percent. I think it would be a much more fair disbursement of funds by doing a number,” she said.

Hymel agreed with having a number instead of a percentage. She also said she received emails asking why this bonus wasn’t offered earlier. She pointed to an agreement, formal or not, that the county and school division would give bonuses and raises equally.

Jones said he has been working on the possibility of a bonus since October 2020, looking at what other localities were doing and having discussions with the county. When the county didn’t show interest in taking that action, he said the school division started looking at doing it on its own.

He said there are 617 full-time employees, but the division would have to define the part-time employee, which has a more complicated makeup.

Cole, Walters, and Ayers said they agreed with providing employees a bonus but that they were reluctant to go above the $580,966 in Jones’ proposal.

Jones was asked to bring some options with dollar amounts for the school board members to consider at an upcoming meeting.

Health insurance renewal

The county and school division had put out a request for proposal (RFP) to see if they want to switch their insurance provider from Anthem Local Choice. The division received three proposals, including one from Aetna and two new ones from Anthem.

However, the proposals they received did not match the rates they currently have with Anthem, which is proposing no rate increase in total premiums next year for employees. The school board voted unanimously to reject the proposals.

Larry Johns, assistant superintendent for finance and business operations, presented the board with a proposed health insurance rate sheet that would increase the early retiree health insurance premiums by 10% and redirect those dollars to current employees. He said the school division had a 10.7% increase to rates in FY 2021 and the board absorbed that increase for all employees and retirees.

Because there are only 44 retirees on this plan, the amount current employees would benefit would only be a few dollars.

Smith and Hymel immediately raised issue with this plan since the board has yet to have a discussion on the retiree benefits.

Cole pointed out that the rates change every year and retirees sometimes have to absorb a higher rate than current employees. However, to expedite the process since it was after 10 p.m. at this point in the meeting, he made a motion to pass the rate sheet without the 10% increase for retirees. The motion passed unanimously.

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