NEWARK – The Worcester County Board of Education voted unanimously this week to extend negotiations with the teachers association.
The school board on Tuesday agreed to extend negotiations with the Worcester County Teachers Association (WCTA) and the Worcester County Education Support Personal Association. Though the groups had initially agreed to certain salary increases for staff, administration said the school system could not afford those increases with the maintenance of effort (MOE) level of funding Worcester County provided this year.
“We are hopeful we can work some kind of increase in,” said Beth Shockley-Lynch, president of the WCTA. “We’re trying to make the best package we can with the limited funds. It won’t be as good as we negotiated but they deserve something.”
The school board last month approved an updated budget featuring a variety of cuts to address a $4.4 million shortfall that arose with the county’s approval of a MOE budget for the school system. Officials made clear at that time the 4% pay increase for teachers and the 4.5% pay increase for support staff could not be funded with the reduced budget. As a result, negotiations between the associations and the school board have been ongoing.
At this week’s school board meeting, several parents and teachers spoke in support of educators. Rose Zollinger, parent of children in the school system who is also a Worcester County Public Schools counselor, said she felt obligated to speak up. She said quality education did not come cheap.
“As such, I implore this board to fund the already agreed upon salaries for my children’s highly qualified educators, to prioritize paying hard working bus drivers accordingly, to prioritize paying invaluable support staff a living wage and while I have this platform I implore our county commissioners, with the exception of commissioners Mitrecic and Purnell, to reflect on the horribly near sighted decision you made to fund only maintenance of effort, aka the minimum, for a school system that has always produced the maximum.”
Stephen Decatur High School teacher Megan Seyler also expressed her concerns. She said that if the teachers weren’t provided the previously negotiated step and cost-of-living increase her paychecks next year would be less than they were this past school year because of the 9.5% insurance increase. She said she was in her 11th year of teaching and held a master’s degree as well as 30 additional graduate level credits.
“If only a step is granted, I’m slated to make $65,850,” she said. “If I was teaching in Wicomico County I would make $76,507. If I was a veteran teacher in Wicomico I would have received a $2,500 retention bonus from ESSER. If Worcester County had followed suit and given their teachers retention bonuses, the county commissioners would not be able to hold this grant over our heads.”
She added that because afterschool programs were being cut to address the shortfall, she also wouldn’t have the opportunity to make extra money during the school year. Furthermore, Seyler said the situation was likely going to get worse, as the Blueprint mandated a $60,000 starting teacher salary in the coming years.
“There is not a mandate in blueprint to compensate veteran teachers at the same rate increase… I chose to become a teacher, the profession that shapes all professions, and should allow me to pay my bills without supplemental employment,” she said.
Following public comments, the board voted unanimously to extend negotiations with the associations. Shockley-Lynch said after the meeting that contracts had expired at the end of June but that this was the first meeting since then so officials thought it was prudent to agree to an extension in writing. She said officials were currently waiting on some information from the state before new agreements could be signed.
“We have questions about some things we’re thinking about doing,” she said. “We want to make sure we have permission from the state to do those things. We’re actively working to get the best agreement we can for our teachers.”
She noted that the school system was trying to hire teachers and the fact that pay hadn’t yet been finalized for the coming school year was not helping. She said current teachers felt like they were in the middle of the budget strife between the school board and the county commissioners.
“We’re disappointed we’re in this predicament,” she said. “Teachers work hard. This doesn’t seem like a just reward.”
While pay increases have not been finalized for teachers and support staff, bus driver rates have been set. Alan Hudson, president of the Worcester County School Bus Contractors Association, said he appreciated the efforts of everyone involved. He said the bus drivers renegotiated pay with school system officials in late June.
“It wasn’t what we agreed on before the commissioners gave maintenance of effort but we are satisfied with what they came up with in this financial climate,” he said. “Hopefully things will be better in the future and the board and commissioners will work out their differences because all they have done is make things hard on the contractors and employees.”