SHENANDOAH JUNCTION – They’re the support workers who make teaching in Jefferson County’s classrooms possible. They’re the cooks and custodians, the secretaries and bus drivers.
They’re the lowest-paid employees in the school system, and they’re weary and harried now from extra workloads from the pandemic, but they’re also committed to doing their jobs for the kids, according to Terri O’Dell, president of the Jefferson County School Service Personnel Association, the public school service workers’ union.
“We’ve stepped up to the plate — big time,” O’Dell said. “All of us are wearing a variety of hats to teach our kids, and we would do that for anything.”
Unlike other voters casting ballots during the Nov. 3 general election, O’Dell acknowledges that school service workers face a dilemma — whether to support continuing an existing excess levy on property taxes for schools for another five years (estimated to collect more than $22.4 million annually), as well as whether to authorize a $43.7 million public bond to pay for two new elementary schools and various school building renovations.
Those normally easy decisions for school employees were made harder at this year’s ballot box, O’Dell said. “That’s because Jefferson’s public school service workers are angry, feeling that the county school board double-crossed them at their most challenging time during the pandemic,” she said.
“There’s a lot of hurt employees,” she said.
The double-cross, O’Dell explained, was a June 22 school board vote, taken without a public discussion or acknowledgment, that approved $310,000 worth of locally funded “stipend” pay raises for 37 administration staff positions. The public documentation for the permanent local pay raises — which will continue to increase from state-funded cost-of-living pay adjustments or pay raises, were placed obscurely in a single page among proposed personnel policies running 325 pages long.
Front-line teachers and support staff struggling through new pandemic protocols inside and outside of the classrooms received nothing.
That was until last week when the school board, while publicly praising the extra efforts and sacrifices front-line school workers have endured, approved a one-time $500 bonus for teachers and service staff.
O’Dell, a secretary at Shepherdstown Middle School, pointed out that the bonuses won’t mean much after taxes are taken out.
But hiring staff from the $310,000 that went to administrator raises would have helped alleviate some of the burdens, even if it amounts to more of a gesture than relief, on the overworked front-line teachers and staff, she said.
For these reasons, leaders of the county school service workers’ union are asking their more than 300 members to vote for the excess levy but not necessarily the bond, O’Dell said. The extra property tax levy provides essential local funding, not only for support staff salaries but also benefits such as dental and eye care health coverage, as well as supplies for students, she said.
The proposed facilities bond can be renegotiated and resubmitted, O’Dell said. The bond can wait, she said.
O’Dell said the timing of the levy and the bond comes just at a time when some political groups are broadly leveling their aim against taxes of any kind. But she admits that the levy and the bond are in a precarious position not only among everyday voters but with teachers and school service workers.
“I really had to fight my people to go for the levy, and I’m not 100 percent sure all of them will,” she said.
Although school administrators have been relatively quiet in advocating for the extra levy and the bond leading up to the general election, Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson made a direct plea to school staff on Tuesday about the importance of the levy passing. Fliers outlining points about the levy were also recently sent home with students. They point out that the levy funds 22 percent of the school system’s $107 million overall budget. The fliers also point out that the levy funds 14 percent of teacher salaries.
Gibson has said the school system couldn’t easily rebound from such a large revenue gap if the levy fails.
Tom Lange, a former West Virginia Education Association president and a retired teacher with 26 years of service in Jefferson County, agrees. But Lange is urging school employees to vote against the levy to force Gibson and the school board to renegotiate it with teachers and school service employees included in the discussion. He supports the bond, however.
There would still be time, Lange said, to present county voters with another levy before the funding would be needed for the next budget year starting in July.
However, O’Dell said she fears rejecting the levy would pose too much risk and chaos for the school system. Pink slips would likely be sent to teachers and employees in January if the levy doesn’t initially pass, she said, even as a second levy would be developed to present to voters.
Voters and school employees who want to send a message of discontent to the school board should vote against the facilities bond, O’Dell said. Then they can also make their voices known during the next school board elections scheduled for 2022, she added.
Where the two local teachers’ unions might formally stand in their support of the levy and the bond wasn’t immediately known. Messages left with local chapters of the West Virginia Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers weren’t immediately returned.
Neither the Democratic nor the Republican parties of Jefferson County have taken a formal stand on either the levy or the bond issues.
School board President Kathy Skinner said the administrator salaries were increased to keep qualified managers and leaders. She pointed out that the average school central office staff pay ranked the third lowest of West Virginia’s 55 school districts before the administrator pay increase was given.
But Lange and O’Dell agreed such a simple statistic doesn’t hold much meaning without closer analysis. Tenure, education, experience, and job titles and responsibilities as well as the size of the school district need to be considered to conduct a useful salary comparison between one school administration and another, they said.
“When I started with the system, it was paper and pencil, I understand that,” O’Dell added, “but I still got an answer within 10 minutes. Now I’m still waiting for eight hours later for simple answers.”
Last year, Kanawha County operated 75 schools serving 25,373 students with 47 administrative positions. Jefferson County operated 17 schools serving 8,900 students with 38 administrative positions (including a non-staff contract attorney).
O’Dell said some lower-level administrator positions probably aren’t paid enough and deserve pay raises. But she pointed to one administrator who received a $14,000 annual paycheck boost after working for the school system for about a year. Even some experienced administrators don’t have the education or performance to justify the pay increases they received, she contends.
One administrator received a $21,000 annual pay raise—“that’s a service job right there,” she said.
“That is very hurtful because both service [workers] and teachers take money out of our pockets to get our school ready for the kids,” O’Dell said. “My family used to laugh at me that I had to go to work to pay for what I spent at work.”
O’Dell points out that her own salary amounts to $36,000 after 29 years of service to the school system.
But O’Dell also said the anger and hurt feelings toward the school board and top central staff goes beyond the amount of the pay raises given, but over the lack of transparency in how the raises were approved.
O’Dell said teachers and service worker representatives in the past have been included in discussions over any funding of pay raises. The lack of transparency involved in granting the administrator raises has damaged trust between the central office and front-line staff, she said.
“All of us feel like it was hidden,” she said of the administrator pay raises. “The transparency isn’t there.”
O’Dell said she informally learned about the pay raises through the school system’s grapevine, only weeks afterward. Most school administrators weren’t informed about their raises either before or after they were approved.
School board members haven’t explained during a public meeting their vote to raise the administrators’ salaries.
Five weeks after the salary raises were passed, Jefferson County Schools spokesman Hans Fogle initially denied that the raises occurred and were contained within the personnel policies that were adopted.
“Stipends did not change at all,” he said. “The only difference is that [the locally funded pay for administrators] used to be a dollar amount so that when the state level went up we had to then come back and recalculate everything. It’s now [the local stipend pay has] just been made a percentage so it will now just automatically move with the state.”
Later, Fogle said he realized he was among several school administrators who were not told about their salary raises either before or after they were approved. His annual stipend raise was $9,704.