Grayson urged not to neglect teachers

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By Ben Bomberger, Reporter

INDEPENDENCE — Last month, Grayson County Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Thomas spoke of a possible reduction in pay and/or a personnel cut to offset the expected $1.2 million shortfall from Governor Tim Kaine's proposed budget cuts.

Those possibilities were on the minds of two people who spoke at a public hearing concerning the county's 2009-10 school budget on Feb. 9.

Grayson Education Association President Rebecca Absher spoke first, representing the GCEA and the 156 teachers and other school employees who are members.

"Everyone here is aware that we approach you each year to urge you to bolster the lagging salaries and benefits of Grayson County Public Schools' education professionals," she told Grayson School Board members. "Every year, we point out to you that we are dead last, or nearly dead last, in compensation among our peers in other nearby school divisions."

According to Absher, the 2008-09 school year is no different.

The GCEA approached the school board a few years ago with a plan to bring attention to the low salaries and worked hard on a five-year proposal that would bring salaries into a competitive range, thereby attracting and retaining highly qualified school personnel.

"The proposal was rejected, and now we find Grayson ranks near the bottom of 132 school divisions," she continued. "Grayson County has the lowest five-, 10- and 15-year benchmark salaries [in the state]."

Absher said she and the GCEA members realize that proposing a new five-year improvement plan is "not appropriate this year," given the pending budget cuts, but she still felt it was necessary for the board to consider in the near future.

"A well-constructed salary schedule rewards classroom experience, promotes continued professional learning and promotes both retention and recruitment of quality staff," Absher said. "You should know that we will never stop trying to be heard on this issue."

The GCEA president said the school division is continually dealing with a downward spiral of spirit and morale — a problem that has driven some of the most experienced and effective teachers and administrators to other schools.

"Often, they go for a better working environment. Often for better pay. Sometimes for both," Absher said.

While she felt she should be at the meeting arguing for improved salaries and health insurance payments, the GCEA understood that times are tough.

"So this year, because of tough economic times and looming cuts in state funding, we come to ask you, very simply, to do everything within your power not to make a bad situation worse," she told the board.

Absher said she understands that buildings and supplies are a critical to being able to work effectively, but first and foremost the school is an organization of people.

"We are people who teach, who drive buses, who cook meals, who fix and keep buildings clean and do all the services that transform an ordinary building into a school."

With recent success the school system has seen in the Virginia Standards of Learning, Absher suggested three standards the GCEA wanted to see the board work hard towards achieving.

"You could call them the Standards of Grayson," she said.

They include:

• Protecting the salary scales and hourly rates.

• Limit the downsizing of staff due to attrition and to avoid any layoffs.

• Protect the value of health insurance benefits and do not pass any increased cost on to the employees.

"We understand that meeting these standards in this budget year will be very, very challenging," Absher said. "But options do exist."

She said the board could consider making adjustments in the budget, adopting an early retirement plan, seeking additional revenue from the county and making creative use of any federal stimulus funding made available.

"People are always — always — more important than things. As you build and renovate schools, remember to build up your staff, as well."

At its budget workshop March 2, the school board will consider an early retirement plan that could save the school system an estimated $100,000 to $200,000 depending on how many employees opt to participate.

Former school board member Fred Weatherman also spoke at the meeting and urged board members to save the employees it has.

Weatherman said Grayson has always had a tough time recruiting teachers and that the system has some of the best teachers around.

He asked board members to consider moving people around in various jobs to avoid layoffs.

Weatherman also urged the board to look closely at any early retirement plans, as they could end up costing the school system thousands of dollars later on.

"I know it's gonna be a tough year... good luck," Weatherman said in closing.

The board will hold a workshop on the budget March 2 at 5:30 p.m. in the boardroom of the Grayson County Courthouse. The meeting is open to the public, but no comments will be taken at that time.