CHARLES TOWN — To acknowledge their extra stress and work to reopen Jefferson County’s public schools during the coronavirus outbreak, Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson asked the school board to give all teachers and service workers an extra $500 bonus.
The one-time pay would total “a little over” $500,000, Gibson said. The money could come from unused federal coronavirus CARES Act funding the school system received, she said.
“That money is for us dealing with this [pandemic] crisis, and the only way we’re getting through it is people,” she said during a school board meeting Monday. “It would help just to be acknowledged that it’s hard [for school staff], and it is taking a lot of extra work.”
The school system could use the federal money under federal guidelines for pandemic spending related to “instructional support,” Gibson said.
“We know it was given for just things,” the superintendent continued of the federal funding, “for temperature scanners and for laptops and for [disinfectant] wipes, and we used it for that. … If we don’t have people then none of this works and it all falls apart.”
School board member Donna Joy asked for clarification over whether it was legal to use the federal money for employee bonuses. Joy said she supported making a first priority of giving frontline workers whatever extra money the school system could afford, and she asked whether teachers and service staff could continue to receive the additional bonuses every year.
Joy also asked whether students are receiving all the materials they need during the reopening of the schools during the virus outbreak.
Gibson said she would provide the documentation she received that confirms the school system could use the federal money for staff bonuses. But she said the school system currently has no dedicated revenue stream to continue the bonuses. However, she said, the school board could consider ways to continue the additional pay while developing the school system’s next budget that starts on July 1.
Gibson said the school board would likely have to identify spending cuts in the school system’s $107 million budget to afford the extra pay yearly.
All school employees already receive three bonuses a year from excess property tax levy funds. Those total bonuses range from $2,470 to $7,300, depending on an employee’s position, tenure and education level.
Gibson also said, for the most part, students are receiving the materials they need while adjusting to classroom life during the pandemic. Some parents of children staying home to learn outside of class over the internet during the first semester have requested textbooks in-school students are using, she said.
But buying those extra textbooks was not financially practical, the superintendent said. Ordering the textbooks would create an oversupply after the pandemic ends, she said.
School board President Kathy Skinner said she would look to put the matter of giving bonuses to teacher and service staff on the agenda for the school board’s next meeting on Oct. 12.
Gibson’s recommendation to distribute the bonuses comes after numerous teachers, school staff, other public officials and taxpayers were surprised and angered to learn that the school board approved more than $310,000 in total pay raises targeted to 37 school administrators and central office employees. An average administrator pay increase was $8,396; the highest pay raise was $20,755 given to school Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer Beth Marrone.
Approved June 22, the annual, ongoing pay raises started July 1. They were adopted without a public discussion or acknowledgment during two school board meetings. The only reference to the administrator pay raises was an unexplained payscale chart included on page 45 of a 325-page personnel policy document that the school board unanimously voted to update. The chart replaced a dollar-based payscale with percentage calculations.
After the administrator pay raises became public, Gibson and Skinner said the raises —after they were initially downplayed as a minor personnel policy change only to make calculating administrator salaries easier — were given to provide competitive pay that would retain quality administrators.
On Monday, Gibson offered a personal admission that she contributed to the anxiety and excessive workloads required of school staff leading up to the Sept. 8 reopening of the schools during the pandemic. She said she has been receiving late-night phone calls and lengthy emails from distraught veteran staffers doubting whether they can continue doing what they’ve been asked to do.
“The staff has had to do a lot of additional training and take on a lot of additional duties in order to make [the school reopenings] work,” she said. “I would like to acknowledge that it was a big ask, and if I am honest with myself, it was too big an ask. I have to be clear about that.”
Gibson pointed out how school cooks are preparing and serving meals to students in school and at home learning online. Some bus drivers are running extra routes to bring Wi-Fi access to students lacking internet connections at home. Custodians are cleaning “high touch points” in schools four additional times each day.
“Everyone is asked to do their jobs very differently in response to this COVID crisis,” Gibson said.
“I need to take a step back,” she told school board members, “and say, ‘What do you think is reasonable for us to do?’ Because I think I’ve been putting out some very unreasonable, high-sky expectations. … We’re literally talking people off the ledge because they are so overwhelmed, and they’re frustrated.”
Later during the board meeting, Gibson suggested that the school board consider eventually giving away Chromebook laptops recently ordered for students to borrow for online schoolwork during the pandemic.
Allowing students to keep the laptops after they graduate—either for free or to purchase for a nominal amount—could be an extra incentive for some students to graduate, Gibson said.
Whether the laptops, as public property, could be given away to students legally still had to be confirmed, Gibson said.
School board member Laurie Ogden said some students going to college couldn’t otherwise afford a laptop computer.
Skinner said a “true laptop” computer—rather than a less powerful Chromebook—would be more useful to students, particularly for college work. But Gibson said the school system would unlikely be able to afford the technology upgrade.
The school system recently purchased hundreds of laptops with CARES Act money to allow students to borrow for online schoolwork.
Gibson was not clear what the school system spent on the Chromebooks and how many were purchased. As many as 1,700 have been ordered but not yet delivered.
Hans Fogle, the school system’s public information officer, was unable to provide the information Tuesday.