CHARLES TOWN – Teachers and school support staff will receive one-time $500 bonuses soon thanks indirectly to federal coronavirus relief funding, the Jefferson County school board decided Monday.
The school board voted 4-1 to provide the bonuses, citing the extra work front-line school staff have done to keep county schools operating last spring and this fall during the pandemic.
“It’s not things that are going to get us through this crisis, it’s people,” Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson said in support of distributing the bonuses.
Board members Kathy Skinner, Mark Osbourn, Gary Kable and Laurie Ogden voted to distribute the bonuses. Board member Donna Joy voted no, citing ongoing budgetary uncertainties from the pandemic.
“It just seems a little premature to me,” she said.
The other board members — each of whom voted in June to approve permanent, ongoing pay raises totaling $310,000 for 37 school administrators—didn’t want to wait.
“We would not be in the situation we are in right now had those people not jumped in and made it possible for these kids to be back in school,” Kable said. “They deserve this.”
“I wish we could find more of this type of money,” Osbourn said. “But I think if we have a small amount like this at this time, it’s only a nice thank you to the staff that have worked so hard.”
“I wish we could add three zeros to the end of that [bonus amount], but it is what it is,” Skinner said after the vote on the bonuses, “It’s a bit more better than nothing at this point. It’s a start.”
Two weeks ago, Gibson suggested awarding the one-time extra pay. She said then that the school system could use federal CARES Act funding received to acquire laptops and other supplies to cope to continue instruction during the pandemic.
The school system could spend the federal money on “instructional support,” the superintendent said then. “We know [the federal money] was given for just things—for temperature scanners and for laptops and for [disinfectant] wipes—and we used it for that,” she said.
Gibson emphasized that the school system didn’t have the money to continue the bonuses in future fiscal years, unless the school board identified spending cuts in the school system’s $107 million operating budget next July.
All school employees already receive three bonuses a year from local excess levy property tax assessments. Those total bonuses range from $2,470 to $7,300, depending on an employee’s position, tenure and education level.
On Monday, Gibson said the federal funding she mentioned earlier freed up local tax money for the bonuses. “It’s not money left over from the COVID CARES Act fund” that will directly fund the bonuses, she said.
Pointing out what the superintendent had told the board two weeks ago, Joy asked for more assurance and “verification that it’s legal” to distribute the staff bonus money.
“The verification that it is legal is that you are expending local general funds, which you have the legal authority [to do],” Gibson responded.
Joy then expressed doubt that paying extra bonuses now when the end of the outbreak isn’t known was financially responsible. The school system may need to buy more equipment and supplies in an emergency, she said. A need that can’t be anticipated — such as coronavirus vaccinations for children — still might arise.
Meanwhile, Joy pointed out that the general election ballot has an estimated $22.8 million in proposed annual excess levy property tax assessments for voters to approve. The ballot also has a $43.7 million proposal seeking approval for the school system to issue bonds for building construction and renovation projects.
What if voters reject those ballot measures? Joy asked.
“It just seems that we don’t know where we are in the pandemic, and why would we use this money now?” she questioned. “It would be wonderful to assure our teachers and support staff with money should it be available.”
“We just don’t know what is going to happen,” she added.
Two weeks ago, Joy, who suspended a 20-year public school teaching career to serve on the school board, said she supports giving front-line workers whatever extra money the school system could afford — but only what the school system can afford without neglecting the needs of students.
On Monday, Gibson repeated what she said two weeks ago — that teachers and school service workers have had to work much harder and rapidly learn new technology since the pandemic arrived in Jefferson County.
“I certainly cannot predict the future nor know what’s going to come,” the superintendent added. “However, I do know that the only way we will weather [the pandemic] successfully is with the people who would be the recipients of this.”
Gibson said “all teachers and all support staff” would receive a bonus. She did not say whether administration staff members will be among those who receive $500 bonuses.
Hans Fogle, the school system’s public information officer, has not yet responded to a request to confirm whether the 37 administrators who received the annual pay raises that started July 1, would share in the $500 bonus distribution.
In addition, the school system has yet to respond to several requests from the Spirit to learn how much federal funding helped purchase 4,169 Chromebook laptops and “convert” 2,250 other computers into more versatile laptops.
Skinner, Osbourn, Kable and Ogden approved the administrator pay raises in June — without any public discussion or acknowledgment — that were authorized by a chart on a single page in a 325-page personnel policy update. The four board members still have not publicly discussed why the pay raises were given.
Elected in June, Joy did not begin serving her four-year term on the school board until July, and therefore she did not vote on the pay raises.