Frustrated Worcester Teachers Exercise ‘Work To Rule’ Over County Pay Decision

Frustrated Worcester Teachers Exercise ‘Work To Rule’ Over County Pay Decision
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BERLIN – Shortly after 8 a.m. Wednesday, there was hardly a car in the parking lot at Buckingham Elementary School. Aside from a custodian doing yard work, the typically bustling school was quiet.

It was just before children began making their appearance for the 8:30 a.m. school day start that teachers began to arrive. They huddled in the parking lot, talking in small groups, before joining together to walk into the building at 8:20 — less than five minutes before their charges began filing off school buses.

Though a subtle display to those unfamiliar with the school, it, along with a similar event at Stephen Decatur High School, marked the first time in recent memory local teachers have resorted to “work to rule.” By meeting just the minimum required by their contracts — putting in no more time than the actual school day hours — teachers are hoping to share their frustration over the salary increases Worcester County officials have cut from the coming year’s proposed budget.

“I’m glad teachers are standing up for themselves but I hate that we’ve gotten to that point,” said Beth Shockley-Lynch, president of the Worcester County Teachers Association. “I never thought I would see this day.”

The last-minute entrances made by teachers at Buckingham Elementary and Stephen Decatur High School were organized by teachers within the schools, not the Worcester County Teachers Association (WCTA), but Shockley-Lynch understands their frustration.

“For schools to take it upon themselves to do work to rule is pretty dramatic for our area,” she said. “I hope it’s sending a message.”

If it isn’t, there’s the possibility that the Facebook page and petition advocating for raises for teachers will. At least that’s what Worcester County’s frustrated educators are hoping.

“Teachers are mad,” said Meme Suznavick, the Pocomoke High School teacher who started the “Our Teachers Matter” Facebook page..

‘A Hard Decision’ Brings ‘Great Deal Of Frustration’ For Teachers

The unrest among area teachers stems from last week’s decision by the Worcester County Commissioners not to fund any raises for county employees. It was one of several cuts county leaders made in an effort to overcome a $22 million budget shortfall.

“The commissioners had a hard decision,” Commission President Jim Bunting said. “We had to do something. When the money’s not there it’s not there.”

In last week’s budget work session, commissioners cut where they could and agreed to increase both property taxes and income taxes to balance the county’s $181 million budget. The board of education allocation, which had been proposed at $82.7 million, was decreased to $79 million. That, according to Superintendent of Schools Jerry Wilson, does not provide the school system with funding for any pay increases for teachers. He said the school system’s request for the county to provide funding for a 2.5-percent cost of living increase and one salary step was the focus of its entire budget request. Though teachers have received modest salary increases in recent years — .5 percent COLA in 2015 and 2 percent COLA increases in 2014 and 2013, the step increases they were denied in fiscal years 2010, 2011 and 2012 have not been restored. A 2.5% step increase was approved in 2015. The previous step increase was 2.5% in 2009.

Wilson is concerned another year with no step increase will have an impact.

“I think that has the potential to affect employment decisions,” he said. “It has the potential to affect morale. Our teachers are professionals. They work hard to educate our children.”

According to Shockley-Lynch, aside from cost-of-living increases teachers are typically paid on a schedule of salary steps.

“Each year if you’ve done a successful job you’d move to the next step,” she said. “It typically goes with your years of service.”

Because of the years Worcester teachers weren’t given step increases, those who have been working in Worcester County 10 years may only be being paid at the level of someone who’s been working here seven years, for example.

“There’s a great deal of frustration,” Shockley-Lynch said.

Suznavick, a former leader of the WCTA, said the widespread discontent and questions being expressed by her peers prompted her to create the “Our Teachers Matter” Facebook page on Monday. Within 12 hours of launching it, more than 500 people had joined the online group. As of Wednesday afternoon, it had 695 members. Similarly, a petition started by Decatur student Zainab Mirza had 718 supporters by mid-day Wednesday.

Suznavick said she hoped her Facebook page would enable teachers to share information and organize efforts to show county leaders how they felt about a budget with no salary increases.

“I felt I needed to create a platform for teachers to vent their frustration for not getting what is owed to them,” she said.

Suznavick says teachers are upset because Worcester County, long one of the best school systems in the state, hasn’t restored the lost salary steps.

“They’re angry because every [other] county in the state has made their teachers whole,” she said, adding that if neighboring Wicomico County gave her a job based on her years of experience, she would be making $4,000 more a year than she’s making in Worcester County.

According to Shockley-Lynch, some teachers have already accepted jobs in neighboring counties.

“We are losing good teachers to other counties,” she said. “That should be a real red flag. I never thought I’d see a teacher go to Somerset County because they’d make more money. It’s not a mass exodus but when the opportunity presents itself people are taking it.”

Commission President: Budget Change Unlikely

In spite of teachers’ work to rule events and their online activity, county leaders say it’s unlikely the budget will be adjusted to include pay increases before it’s adopted in June.

“I’m not saying it’s impossible but I don’t think it will be reconsidered,” Bunting said. “It’s not happened in the past.”

Bunting, who said Tuesday he had not had any feedback from area residents regarding the salary decision, said deciding against pay increases for teachers — and any other county employees — was something the commissioners had to do in light of Worcester County’s $22 million budget shortfall. To balance the budget, officials agreed to refrain from giving employees raises and to increase property taxes as well as income taxes for the county’s citizens.

“I don’t think we have any choice,” Bunting said, adding that the move might put the county in a financial position that would permit raises in the future. “I’d hope the teachers could understand we had to make some difficult decisions. We’ve also made the taxpayers upset.”

In recent years, the commissioners have voted to provide teachers with raises. Though no increases — step or otherwise — were granted in FY 2010, 2011 or 2012, teachers were provided with step increases, as well as varying cost-of-living adjustments, in FY 2013, 2014 and 2015. The starting teacher salary, which in FY 2013 was $42,222, is now $42,433.

Ted Elder, a county commissioner and school bus driver, says the county provides the school system with enough funding that it ought to be able to give its teachers raises.

“I think with the proper allocation and the proper handling of funds they’ve got enough to give these teachers raises,” he said.

According to Elder, Worcester County spends more per student than any county in the state.

“Teachers just don’t understand how much we’re giving to the board of education,” he said. “I don’t understand why they’re turning on the county commissioners rather than the board of education.”

He added that it had been a very difficult budget year, particularly because four of the commissioners were new — elected last fall — and had come into a substantial shortfall.

“We had to make some major decisions,” he said. “People might not be happy but it had to be done.”

According to Shockley-Lynch, board of education funding is divided into a number of categories, salaries being one of them. She said it would be possible for the school system to reallocate funding within its budget in order to increase salaries but that it would require approval from the county commissioners. It would also mean money would be taken away from other areas of the school system’s budget.

“We could do that but it’s taking away from a service we provide,” she said. “I guess it will depend on what we’re willing to give up. We’re going to have to think long and hard.”

Representatives from the WCTA will be meeting with school system officials to renegotiate their contract next week if the commissioners introduce a budget that doesn’t include funding for raises as expected.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.