Worcester School Board Cuts 32 Positions For Pay Increases; 13 EAs Expected To Lose Their Jobs

Worcester School Board Cuts 32 Positions For Pay Increases; 13 EAs Expected To Lose Their Jobs
06 19 Color Page 04 WEB

NEWARK – The elimination of 32 positions will enable the Worcester County Board of Education to fund pay increases for teachers.

On Tuesday, the school system ratified negotiated agreements with the Worcester County Teachers Association (WCTA) and the Worcester County Education Support Personnel Association (WCESPA) finalizing salaries for the coming school year. Those teachers and support personnel eligible will receive a step increase while those beyond the step system (who have been teaching in Worcester County for more than 15 years) will receive a 1 percent cost-of-living increase. Teachers who are three years behind in step increases will also receive a mid-year step increase.

Bus contractors will get an equivalent pay raise.

“Teachers are getting a little bit,” school Board of Education member Sara Thompson said. “Not what we need to give them but they’re getting something.”

Though education officials announced plans to give teachers raises early in this year’s budget process, when county leaders voted not to fund all of the board of education’s $82.7 million request school system officials and representatives of WCTA and WCESPA went back into negotiations.

“From the beginning, we have been vocal in support of pay increases for county and school system employees,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jerry Wilson. “Our employees are central to becoming a world class system for our children. Fundamental to this mission is to honor salary schedules. Our employees have been patient while exceeding our performance expectations. They must be fairly compensated.”

Using the SurveyMonkey website, WCTA and WCESPA members were able to vote on the renegotiated contract agreement in time for Tuesday’s school board meeting. According to Beth Shockley-Lynch, president of the WCTA, more than 95 percent of association members voted to support the contract. She praised school system officials for reallocating the money to fund salary increases.

“We are making history in Worcester County today,” she said. “You’ve chosen to break with tradition and take a different approach to funding our budget. This has been a tough year for all of us, but I love happy endings and you’ve given us a happy ending.”

Bob Rothermel, president of the school board, said officials had faced a difficult dilemma but had realized the importance of supporting school employees.

“I think we had a moral obligation to do what we did,” he said.

Wilson said the $1.9 million pay package was made possible by the elimination of 1.5 administrator positions, 17.5 teaching positions and 13 educational assistant positions. Though the teaching and administrative positions were vacated through retirement or resignation, 13 of the county’s 177 educational assistants lost their jobs.

“Each of these positions directly supports a child’s education,” he said. “These losses affect the community yet we need to ensure staff are paid fairly.”

Wilson also said that in spite of what some of the county’s elected officials have said, the fact that Worcester County has the highest per-pupil funding in the state does not mean it’s easy to find the money to pay for salary increases.

“There is nothing easy about it,” Wilson said.

According to the superintendent, Worcester County ranks 13th in the state when it comes to teacher pay. In recent weeks, community members and educators have lobbied for raises for local teachers, citing the fact that many could earn more money working in other counties. Statewide, the average teacher salary is $65,000. In Worcester County, it’s $61,000, Wilson said.

In a news release issued after Tuesday’s decision, school system officials said education spending was showing a downward trend in Worcester County. In 2000, the county spent 51 percent of its financial resources on the school system. In 2015, the county spent 44 percent of its budget funding the school system.

“We’re seeing other counties dedicate a greater percentage of their county resources to their school systems,” said Vince Tolbert, the board of education’s chief financial officer. “In fact, the latest statistics from Maryland’s Department of Legislative Services show that 83 percent of Maryland’s jurisdictions dedicated more of their county resources to public education than Worcester.”

Tolbert said those school systems included Somerset and Wicomico.

Tolbert said the salary package approved Tuesday was achieved through the savings from the elimination of the 32 positions, which amounted to $1.7 million, as well as through early retirement and energy savings.

Wilson said the loss of the positions would be felt not just in the schools but in the local community, as the school system was a powerful economic engine.

“The irony is that the very engine that could help drive a stronger economic recovery in Worcester County is being forced to cut jobs in order to provide fair wages for its employees,” Wilson said. “It’s an alarming paradox because robbing Peter to pay Paul is certainly not a sustainable practice.”