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home : web-exclusive features : web-exclusive features July 22, 2017

5/15/2017 3:36:00 PM
Letter To The Editor - In A Position To Correct Course

Dear Editor,
Thank you for this space to express the Covington Education Association’s concerns regarding unequal compensation for employees in the Covington City Public School system.

The Covington Education Association has approached the Covington school board on several occasions over the past five years to request that salary steps be reinstated after the steps were frozen in the 2011-12 school year. The CEA has requested that steps be reinstated for all employees, not just teachers. The CEA also has stated publicly that the current board is not at fault for the situation we now find ourselves in as a district, but that this board is in a position to correct our course and realign the pay scales in a fair and equitable manner.

First, let us explain what salary steps are, how they affect an employee over the long term and how they are used in Virginia. Salary steps by definition are regular increases in pay, (or steps) that certificated employees (teachers) typically receive for each year of service in Virginia.

In most Virginia school systems, teachers receive an increase in pay for each year they work in that district. It is the local division’s choice whether to count years of service in other districts or other states. School divisions may also establish steps for pay ranges.

For example, a district may award one pay step at the end of years 1-3, then another step at the end of years 4-6, etc. Regardless of the method, steps raise a teacher’s salary so that they have a means of recognition for years of service and seniority, and steps provide a path to earn more in retirement. Retirement income in the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) is paid based upon the employee’s highest three years of earnings. This is true for all employees under the VRS plan.

At the end of the 2011-12 school year, Virginia change in the way school systems paid the employee portion of the VRS retirement plan. Previously, school systems were required to pay the entire amount toward a teacher’s retirement. Virginia changed the formula for contributions and required employees to pay 5 percent of their income toward retirement. Divisions were given the option of taking the entire 5 percent in one year for all employees and every year following, or divisions could take 1 percent each year and gradually increase the amount the employee paid over five years.

The board elected to withhold 1 percent a year for VRS for all employees hired prior to 2012. The board also chose to withhold the entire 5 percent from employees hired after 2012. This was also the same year that the division froze steps and delayed the implementation of the classified pay increases through Phases 2 and 3.

CCPS established a two-tier pay scale to accommodate this change in retirement payments. The board agreed that employees hired prior to 2012 would be paid differently from those employed after 2012. These decisions sent the division down the road toward unequal compensation for all employees. This was also the same year that the division froze steps and delayed the implementation of the classified pay increases through Phases 2 and 3.

Many years ago, CCPS established pay scales for teachers and administrators with steps set as regular increases for each year of service until year 21. Teachers and administrators earned increases based on years of service and level of education, which was accepted as fair and equal pay.

In addition, teachers received what is known as “the bump,” which is a longevity bonus starting in year 21. Teachers who reach this milestone no longer received step increases, but could receive percentage increases given by the state of Virginia, also known as Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) increases. However, COLA is not a pay raise. Rather, it is often given with a raise to maintain an employee’s income relative to inflation and a higher cost of living. COLA should not be considered in the same category as steps. If no percentage increase was given in the state budget, a CCPS teacher would have retired at that highest pay following the longevity bonus.

Other employees of the school system, who are labeled as classified staff, were also promised steps under the Phase 1, 2 and 3 plan. These employees received Phase 1 of the plan in 2011 to start the process of raising their wages to a “living wage,” but the remaining two steps were never awarded to classified employees. These employees are also a part of VRS and work toward their highest earnings for retirement. While classified employees have not seen the board’s promise of Phases 2 and 3 fulfilled, they have received COLA increases through the generosity of the school board.

However, the two-tiered pay scales continues to hurt employees over the long term since retirement income in the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) is paid based upon the employee’s highest three years of earnings. This is true for all employees under the VRS plan. The choice not to reinstate steps and Phases 2 and 3 has set employees back in their retirement plans.

To complicate the situation even further, the human resources manager was directed to “bump back” teachers hired after 2012 with previous experience from other districts. The superintendent at that time felt it was unfair to hire a new employee who could possibly earn more than a current employee, due to the wage freeze. Unfortunately, this imbalance in pay is exactly what has happened, regardless of all good intentions.

In practical terms these decisions mean that a teacher hired in 2011-12 with 15 years of experience was paid for those 15 years. However, a teacher hired the following year, 2012-13, was pushed back one year on the pay scale and started at year 14 when hired. The new hire, who had 15 years of experience, was paid $500-800 dollars less than the current employee. Both teachers had the same years of experience, but the new hire lost income to make the pay scale “fairer” because the board had frozen salaries. In addition, the new hire was required to pay the full 5 percent toward the VRS retirement, reducing their net pay even more.

If a teacher with 15 years of experience was hired in 2013-14, he or she was pushed back two years on the pay scale. A teacher hired in 2014-15 was pushed back three years on the pay scale. This process resulted in the situation that a teacher hired in 2016-17 was pushed back five years on the pay scale, which lowered his or her salary up to $2000 per year. So, if the new hire came in with 10 years, he or she was paid for five years of experience.

During discussion at several meetings this year, board members have stated that teacher pay was never frozen, that only steps were frozen, and that teachers are earning nearly the same amount they would have earned steps due to percentage increases granted by the state budget. However, this statement is inaccurate and the gap between the two pay scales has grown wider.

For example, a teacher with 17 years of experience, who was hired as a new employee for the 2011-12 school year, received a salary that reflected his full 17 years. That teacher had the expectation that the following year, when he had 18 years of experience, that he would move to the next step on the scale in the 2012-13 school year.

Each step added about $500 to the employee’s salary, so if the employee earned $50,000 when hired, the following year he expected to earn about $50,500.00.

Unfortunately, the freeze on steps was put in place and that teacher remains to this day on Step 17, when he should be earning the salary established for Step 22.

This same teacher, who should be on Step 22, lost nearly $11,000 in salary in one year because of the freeze. The teacher has worked those years but is still being paid a salary based on the 2011-12 pay scale. If the steps remain frozen for the 2017-18 school year, the amount the teacher loses only increases, which in turn lowers the retirement the teacher has worked for.

To make matters worse, a new hire in 2016-17 who comes in at the top of the scale could earn more than a current teacher with the same years of experience. In short, the situation that the division hoped to avoid has actually developed and short-changes teachers on retirement.

The CEA has also voiced a concern that the board, past and present, has created a different type of inequality when the pay scales for teachers and administrators are examined.

At the end of the 2014-15 school year, the board voted to give administrators one year on the administrator’s pay scale for every two years in the classroom. That was a generous and appropriate offer for administrators, which prevented a new administrator from earning less as a principal than he or she had earned as a teacher. It is certainly fair to pay a supervisor who works 12 months a year more than he or she earned for 10 months a year.

However, in taking this action, and then extending this offer to all administrators hired in the following years, the district gave steps to one class of employees, but not others. This action not only created an unfair pay increase between two groups of employees — teachers and administrators — but also created an imbalance between positions at the high school, setting up the assistant principal to earn more than the principal. The CEA feels this situation is a form of discrimination among groups of employees.

The issue of discrimination against teachers is further supported by the following examples from the past five years:

•The board has yet again submitted a budget that continues the use of two salary scales. This is the sixth year the scales have been unbalanced.

•Teachers with same years of experience will continue to earn different salaries.
•Teachers at the top of the scale are not paid equally.

•Teachers who are new hires for 2017-18 will be “bumped” back six years on the pay scale.

•Teachers with master’s degrees are paid different educational stipends.

•New administrators receive steps as supervisors through their years of teaching experience rather than moving up through years of service in administration.

The CEA has made several attempts to help the board adjust the pay scales in a fair and equitable manner. The board also hired a consultant to propose a means to balance scales. Those proposals have not received a vote at this time. We know as the CEA there are new board members who have inherited this problem, but there are also current board members with longevity who have not solved the problem during their previous terms.

The CEA also was told that the division would conduct a survey on health insurance plans and possible increases. The association had proposed that employees would be willing to pay more of their own costs if the district would keep the current plans.

This offer was also ignored and a new health insurance plan was voted on that costs employees more and offers less coverage when deductibles are calculated as part of the employee’s costs.

The increase in health costs are more of a burden for classified staff who have not received their increases through Phases 2 and 3 and who earn less than a living wage in most cases.

The CEA was led to believe that there was a serious effort to correct salary discrepancies for the 2017-18 school year. This belief was based on statements made by and the actions of the board in public meetings.

A few weeks ago, the board discussed earmarking $400,000 for a New Tech Academy. When that proposal was voted down, no board member proposed applying that money to salaries to correct pay scales, which we have been told repeatedly is the top priority of the division. If the board could consider setting aside money for New Tech, why not salaries?

The CEA calls upon the citizens to ask the school board to continue to invest in its most valuable resources: its employees. We appreciate the jobs that we have, but we want all employees to be paid fairly. We appreciate that the locality, the city of Covington, has funded the system more than adequately. In fact, in 2012, the city funded the schools at more than 200 percent of what was required.

Covington City Public Schools has been most generous in their application of the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) increases from the state budget over the past five years. Rather than apply the raises in the strictest sense by giving an increase only to core teachers, which is really what the governor grants, they have awarded the percentage increase to all employees, regardless of classification or seniority.

The manner in which the current and past boards have managed state funds for raises is praiseworthy. CEA has thanked the current board and past members for their generosity in this regard. Only last year, the board went beyond anyone’s expectations by awarding the full 2 percent increase to all employees after the state withdrew their offer of support for the raise. Our request to reinstate steps is in no way meant to disregard these noteworthy efforts.

However, unfairness breeds discontent and we do not want to see teachers lose faith or feel abandoned by its board. If teachers begin to leave due to the inequity in the pay scales, the system could break down at its core. It is already difficult to recruit teachers and staff for our division. It grows more difficult each year that the pay scales are not balanced.

The division also stands to benefit in the long term because teachers at the top of the scale will retire sooner, making space for employees who will lower the overall personnel costs for the board. Employees of retirement age are now working longer than they planned to work because they cannot afford to retire without the longevity bonus.

We request that the board realign the pay scales so that all employees receive fair compensation for their work. Please support our schools so that our students can reach their goals through the education they receive from qualified teachers and staff. The CEA calls upon the citizens to ask the school board to continue to invest in its most valuable resources: its employees. We appreciate the jobs that we have, but we want all employees to be paid fairly.

The CEA Compensation Committee
Covington Education Association
Executive Board

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