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Powhatan schools make the case for raises

Powhatan schools make the case for raises

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POWHATAN – Powhatan County Public Schools stated its case for increasing employee compensation at the most recent joint meeting between the school board and board of supervisors.

While the impact of the evening’s revelations was unknown at the end of the joint meeting on Tuesday, March 16, superintendent Eric Jones, the school board members, and several teachers took the chance to advocate for a 5% raise for all employees and targeted raises to address compression issues among some teachers.

The three-hour meeting covered a wide range of topics, most of which tied back in some way to the overall discussion about the fiscal year (FY) 2022 operating budget and school funding.

The biggest surprise of the evening came at the beginning of the meeting, when both Jones and county administrator Ned Smither were giving their introductions to the budget discussions.

Smither offered a chart that compared the recent projected school budget drafts with his own most recent projection – which hadn’t been seen by either board. The school division’s version of its budget was projected at $50,554,827 while Smither’s budget was $50,340,688 – a reduction of $214,139 over what the school division was budgeting.

After the school division received information about the level of funding it could expect from the state, $24.5 million, the amount was higher than originally projected. That amount included the state portion of what it would cost to give all school division employees a 5% raise. The state only pays its part on Standards of Quality (SOQ) positions, which is about 62% of the division’s workforce.

However, instead of absorbing all of the state money increase, as the school board’s version did, Smither’s projection decreased the local contribution to the schools, creating the difference of $214,139 in the two versions.

Neither versions presented by Jones or Smither have been approved by their respective boards. And while the school board asked for the 5% plus targeted raises and some of the supervisors gave supportive but noncommittal responses, at the end of the night, the budget’s future direction was still unclear.

The evening was also punctuated by several passionate speeches from Powhatan teachers talking about either the role teachers played in the lives of students in the last year or specifically about the issue of raises and compression.

Nancy Taylor, a Powhatan High School math teacher, brought up the issue of salary compression and how teachers with more than 23 years of service were making less than a teacher in that position would have made in 2008. The salaries ranged from $400 to $3,500 less than the same position made in 2008, depending on the years of experience.

Several other teachers, including some with more than 23 years of experience, also spoke on issues such as compression, the need for raises, health care benefits for retirees, Powhatan’s competitiveness in attracting and retaining employees, and the simple desire to know that their work is appreciated.

The two boards and county staff covered a wide range of topics during the three-hour meeting.

Employee compensation

A large portion of the discussion about the FY 2022 budget centered on the issue of employee compensation.

Members of the two boards talked about how competitive Powhatan is in terms of salaries and benefits when stacked against their neighbors. The discussion touched on both retaining qualified employees and hiring new ones rather than losing them to other localities.

The board members discussed information Jones provided about how the county ranks in a comparison with 13 other schools on how their salaries compare. Jones said the goal wasn’t to be at the top of the pack in terms of salaries but somewhere in the middle and definitely not in the lower end, where most of the positions he highlighted were located.

A good portion of time was spent discussing the school board’s thoughts on a 5% employee raise for division staff. To be eligible to receive state funds for the raises, the school board could either give a blanket 5% raise to all employees or give targeted raises to employees that add up to the total amount of the 5% raise for all employees. Either option carries a price tag of $1.45 million, with $722,531 from the state and the local portion being $727,303.

A great deal of discussion centered on targeted raises – both questioning why the compression of teachers with more than 23 years of experience has grown so much and why it wasn’t previously addressed by the school board. Jones said that the school board has addressed compression on two previous occasions in recent years but the salary scale faces compression at all levels and usually has to be addressed in the areas with the greatest needs when the funds are available.

Jones said it would take $127,183 to give raises that target compression for certain long-term teachers to get them above what the same position (in this case specifically teachers) would have been paid in 2008 at the corresponding years of experience.

FY 2022 budget

Beyond compensation, some of the discussion around the FY 2022 budget centered on expected enrollment and Powhatan’s Composite Index. Jones pointed out that because of the county’s Composite Index, Powhatan has lost a total of almost $4 million in state funding since FY 2016. Part of the reason the school division gets dinged every year on the Composite Index is because the county only does assessments every two years instead of annually.

During the public comment period, commissioner of the revenue Jamie Timberlake advocated for annual assessments and pointed out the state rewards localities for taxing citizens fairly and equally on the fair market value of their property and punishes them for not doing it in a timely manner.

When asked about lower enrollment and how it impacts staffing levels, Jones said the administration looks at the issue every year and makes decisions based on that year’s enrollment and needs. This turned into a broader discussion about state funding for SOQ positions and how many more employees are needed over that amount. Board members and staff also discussed how Powhatan’s per pupil cost compares not only to the state but other comparable jurisdictions.

Originally the school division was asking to fund six new positions, but that request has been narrowed down to a school counselor position mandated by the state, a bookkeeper at Powhatan Elementary that has been vacant a year, and an assistant director of transportation.

Health insurance

The boards have been happy to learn that county employees would not see an increase on their health insurance premiums this year.

Instead, last week’s discussion about health insurance premiums and coverage focused on two main issues: the difference in county and school division contributions toward health care and a benefit the school division offers of covering a portion of retirees’ premiums while they are still under age 65.

On the employer cost comparison, Jones gave a detailed comparison of how the county and school division differ in their contributions to employee health care and the costs that would be incurred if they tried to equalize it so they were using the same approaches. There were a few key areas where the county and the school division differ in their compensation plans. The county pays a larger percentage of the employer contribution, and to bring the school division up to the same level would cost $336,240, Jones said.

The county also offers employees who choose not to take the county’s insurance an annual $1,000 payment. The county currently has 37 employees using that benefit, at a cost of $37,000. If the school division were to offer it to the 189 employees currently not using its insurance, it would cost $189,000.

The other main difference between the plans is that the county offers a lower contribution to its employees’ Health Savings Accounts ($85 to the school division’s $100). Reducing the school division’s contribution to match the county would save $11,160, while increasing the county amount to match the schools would cost an additional $5,580.

More of the time on health insurance was spent talking about the school division’s contribution toward retirees’ healthcare if they meet the eligibility requirements but retire before age 65. The school division picks up anywhere from 32% to 87% of the monthly employer contribution, depending on the insurance plan and whether it is for single, dual, or a family.

The school division currently has 44 retirees using this benefit at an annual cost of $327,528, but those numbers fluctuate as retirees age out or employees retire and start using the benefit.

Jones pointed out that no other school division in Central Virginia offers the level of benefit that PCPS does for its retirees’ health care, which has long been an excellent recruitment tool.

Jones talked about how this long-time benefit of the school division can often be a cost saver for the county because employees retire and are usually replaced by staff with fewer years of experience and thus lower salaries. In a snapshot comparison of six retirees and their replacements’ salaries, the net savings to PCPS was still $60,255, he said.

While no decisions were made during the meeting, there were suggestions of phasing out the retiree benefit.

Policies

The board members had two brief discussions on different policies that affect their two bodies.

The school board sought assurance that after being suspended for a year, the school division’s agreement with the county that any unused school funds would go to a PCPS Capital Maintenance Reserve Fund would be back in place at the end of this fiscal year. The supervisors gave assurances that it would.

The boards were also presented with a draft of the Revenue Stabilization Reserve Policy, which was established as an additional rainy day fund for the county in 2020 using unused funds from FY 2020. The two boards will now have a chance to review the policy, which was created by staff members.

Pocahontas Landmark Center

Discussion about the future of the currently vacant portions of the Pocahontas Landmark Center was brief and centered mostly on Smither’s recommendation of pursuing the possibility of a public-private partnership. The goal would be to seek proposals involving private investment and operation that is mindful of the space’s proximity to an elementary school.

“We are looking for proposals from the private sector that will be conducive to this site and one that best suits Powhatan citizens,” he said.

Smither’s recommendation followed a recent presentation on the unused space to the board of supervisors, who weren’t in favor of the suggestions of either putting only a new roof on that part of the building or a total renovation without hard numbers and a better plan.

Part of the issue is that the entire Pocahontas Landmark Center is still owned by the school division, which Bill Cox, District 4, pointed out specifically. But Rick Cole, District 1, talked about the school board’s stated desire for several years of transferring the unused part of the building to the county and reminded the supervisors of the goal of having a joint venture.

David Williams, District 1, agreed with him but said the problem is they want to do a joint venture but haven’t been able to come up with viable options they can all buy into.

Smither plans to bring back the results of his request for proposal.

Public comments

Of the nine people who spoke during the meeting’s two public comment periods, eight were Powhatan educators. They gave passionate speeches about a range of topics and made several requests and points to the two boards.

Penetha Robertson pointed out that in reviewing salary scales since 2008, she found that the difference in salary scale for her position and years of experience now versus in 2008 is -1.38%. At the current rate, she will be making 2.48% less in two years that the same position in 2008.

Blythe Samuels talked about the strides PCPS has made to create quality programs that get students college and career ready. Doing that takes sacrifice and sweat equity on the part of teachers, which should be recognized by the county, she said.

Brooks Bradbury Smith talked about FY 2021 budget discussions and the promise that when the November 2020 tax collection rates were known, the issue of compensation would be revisited, which didn’t happen. She pointed out that the county budgeted for a 92% collection rate but actually saw a 97% rate.

She also questioned board members picking and choosing how Powhatan compares itself to other jurisdictions or even private corporations in the benefits and compensation it offers based on where they want to cut costs.

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

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