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GCEA: bad time to request salary increase

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By Ben Bomberger, Reporter

INDEPENDENCE — Raises may not have been in the request from the Grayson County Education Association for the upcoming school year, but increases in other areas were.

Facing a potential $2.3 million reduction in its budget, the Grayson County Public Schools is preparing for the possibility of possible reductions in positions.

GCEA President Rebecca Absher was the only speaker at a public hearing concerning the school system's 2010-11 school budget on Feb. 8.

She began by commending the board for putting the people who serve Grayson students at the top of the list of priorities last year by allowing any school system employee who wanted to keep his or her job to do so.

"Our first order of business tonight is to reemphasize those same standards," Absher told board members. "Please protect the jobs of those who want and need to continue working for you. And please also protect our health insurance program and the current salary and wage rates of your employees."

To keep things in context, Absher noted that public schools continue to be under extreme scrutiny.

While college professors complain that high schools are not preparing students for college in math and writing, state governments continue to want more "accountability" and require all students to take standardized tests.

Absher continued to say that local governments continue to direct school boards to "cut the fluff" from budgets that are already "bare bones," while low parental involvement and decreased family income due to recession-driven job losses have affected students' attitudes toward learning.

To cope with these challenges, Absher said teachers have "become one of the most well-prepared and highly educated groups of professions" in the country — noting that the average teacher spends four to six years in college earning degrees, many months in practice teaching and then, after taking several "very challenging tests" required by Virginia, they finally earn a license that gives them a right to teach.

"And yet, as demands for training and quality continue to grow, the value of teacher compensation declines."

This is evident, she continued, in that many teachers have changed careers so they can be paid more. A growing concern is sweeping the country that, as teachers retire, the pool of quality, American teachers is getting smaller.

"In other words, good teachers, who are essential for the kinds of schools that we need and want in 2010, are getting harder and harder to find and retain," she told board members.

The GCEA president brought up these points as a strong reminder of the improvement the county's salary scale needs.

Four years ago, the GCEA formed a compensation committee and developed a five-year proposal to bring salaries within a range that would be more competitive.

"We worked long and hard developing a proposal that would do just that," she said. "We had high hopes that the board would give our proposal serious consideration. Unfortunately, that didn't happen."

Now, in tougher times, Absher said she understands the fiscal challenges the county and school system are facing, but reminded the board that Grayson County ranks at the bottom of Virginia's 132 school divisions in teacher salaries.

"Dead last in the 10 years experience benchmark," she said. "The old saying is 'You get what you pay for.' Thank goodness in this case it isn't true."

Absher spoke next of the "downward spiral of spirit and morale" within the school system that has driven some of the system's most experienced and effective teachers and administration to other school divisions

Though times are tough and asking for similar proposals from four years ago would be "foolish," Absher reminded the board that it is also important to point out that the economic recovery of the county depends on a strong and viable work force.

Calling it "unrealistic" to ask for salary increases in the budget, the GCEA president instead presented four proposals — proposals that would cost far less than a salary increase — to make Grayson a more attractive place to work.

The first was for the board to amend current personal leave policy to make it possible for employees who earn personal leave to roll over some of their sick days to personal days.

Absher also asked the board to allow employees to accumulate 10 personal days per year. She pointed out that numerous local school systems allow this policy.

The second proposal from the GCEA was to recognize and reward those employees who earn certification under the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards with a one-time "substantial stipend."

The third proposal was to increase the salary supplement awarded to teachers who have earned a Masters degree.

Absher said $1,500 is "not enough incentive for teachers to see any financial benefit in earning a Masters degree."

With the average cost of graduate-level classes increasing, an employee would have to work more than seven years to be reimbursed for the degree.

"A Masters' degree is a rigorous and difficult process, especially when you are still teaching and working full-time," Absher said. "It should be respected and rewarded as such by our administration."

The fourth proposal was a simple calendar change.

Absher told the board that teachers — especially those in elementary schools — need a full teacher workday at the end of a six-week term, instead of the early dismissal at 1 p.m.

While the GCEA was not supporting adding additional workdays to the calendar, they simply asked the board to consider moving the ones at the end of the school year and placing them throughout the school calendar — particularly at the end of each six-week grading period.

In conclusion, Absher reminded the board that the GCPS Policy Manual states "The Constitution of the Commonwealth provides that the General Assembly establish a system of free public elementary and secondary schools for all children of school age throughout the state, and ensure that an educational program of high quality is continually maintained."

She continued to say that history has been shaped by visionary individuals and their actions. "Will you join them by ensuring that our school system is not only one of high quality, but that our high-quality system — even now, even in hard times — is maintained?"

With no further comments from the audience, the public hearing was closed.

Board members will begin working on next year's budget at its first workshop on Monday.

The meeting will be held at the Grayson County courthouse board room and begins at 6 p.m. A second budget workshop is scheduled the following week for March 1. It also begins at 6 p.m.