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CHARLES TOWN – While highlighting an increasing challenge to hire and keep school employees, School Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson outlined a preliminary list of possible new perks and benefits to offer county classroom teachers and school service workers.

Gibson laid out a baker’s dozen of short- and long-term ideas ranging from giving school employees an extra family-leave day every year to starting a child care center to serve the children of school employees.

A few staff-retention ideas the superintendent proposed, such as providing an extra “loyalty payment,” would be geared to making current employees happier. Some ideas would expand pay incentives to service workers that teachers now receive, such as reimbursing service workers for continuing education costs and creating a service worker scale with more robust automatic pay increases.

At least one idea, providing a “relocation bonus” to new hires moving to Jefferson County, would be designed to recruit new employees.  

“One of the things that we wanted to do was to look at several different areas that we could address as support for our staff,” Gibson told school board members Monday evening. “Any additional ideas that you have or things that you don’t believe you could support, we’ll make changes. But I just want to be clear. These aren’t things that we’ve done. They’re not set in stone. They’re simply things that we’ve heard from staff.”

Cost estimates for the employee benefit proposals would come later, Gibson said.

Significantly boosting current pay scales outright for teachers and service workers was mentioned. Still, Gibson pointed out that permanently raising employee salaries would be challenging. And the cost of any proposals, she said, would have to be sustained in future budgets, she pointed out.

“We do have funding now thanks to the CARES Act,” she said. “But any salary increase, we have to be able to carry through over time.”

Gibson said a nationwide challenge in hiring new teachers is affected by the declining number of university students studying for careers as teachers. Meanwhile, Jefferson County’s teachers are older on average than those who are about 46 years old on average elsewhere in the United States, she said.

“The last time we did a review of our own staff we had nearly a third of our staff who were within three years of retirement age,” she said. “So there are a lot of factors that are driving competitiveness in the teaching market.”

Expanding benefit proposals for school employees — a prominent voting bloc and constituency on school system matters — comes as Gibson and school board members have been facing an increasingly vocal political opposition. A Black Math Genius summer program has generated the most recent uproar and demonstrations from some parents and everyday citizens.

During Monday night’s school board meeting, Gibson was sharply reminded again by grandparent Karen Buck about the renewed political activism. The goal of the school board’s political opposition, Buck said, would be to oust Gibson as superintendent.

Three of the school board’s five seats are up for election in May.

School board member Kathy Skinner, whose school board position will be up for election, said she hoped some of the measures could be adopted soon.

“This could be just a living process,” Skinner said of the effort to expand school employee pay and benefits.

Gibson said some measures could likely be adopted before the start of the new school year.

Teachers return to classrooms on Aug. 17 to prepare for the new school year. Students return to classes on Aug. 23.

Gibson said some employee satisfaction and retention measures might take longer to implement if they require process or policy changes. Other actions might require school system process changes. Some measures might involve conversations with teachers associations, she said, and others could require legislative changes in Charleston.

School board member Laurie Ogden, whose board seat also will face the voters in May, said she most liked the idea of the school system starting a child care center for its school employees.

Ogden added that she would like to see a school system-run child care center provide academic training for students to work in the child care field and that the center could also help students who become pregnant continue their public education and give student fathers and mothers “quite frankly, mandatory time in learning about how to parent,” she added.

“In my opinion, I think that’s a huge goal but a great goal that we really need to push towards as well,” she said.

However, Gibson said keeping school employees involves more than monetary paycheck benefits. Retention efforts should include intangible factors costing little where employees feel valued as both professionals and individuals.

“[Employees] have to have some autonomy and control,” the superintendent said. “They have to feel that the decisions being made are fair and transparent, and they have to have some work-life balance. … So a lot of what we’re working on are things to address that.”

School board member Donna Joy, whose school board position won’t face voters until 2023, said a “serious problem” in the school system is a lack of a conflict resolution process between teachers, service workers and school administrators.

Joy pointed out how math teachers at Washington High School recently became upset and insulted over how school administrators supported the Black Math Genius summer program when the program’s developer inferred that the school system’s teachers might be racist.

Joy said teachers who spoke up about their views over the summer program received critical letters. “They felt like they were reprimanded for speaking up,” she said. “So there needs to be a safe place for teachers.”

“Three teachers at Washington are gone,” she added. “And it was all over policies, and I feel like we could have stopped it. I tried to stop it. But I don’t know how it got so bad.”

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