No one argued with the declaration that teacher and support staff pay is at a crisis point.
Tuesday evening, the county’s Board of Supervisors’ meeting chamber was nearly filled to capacity. Many of those in attendance were teachers — all concerned about the county’s pay scale.
Leigh Ann Franklin of Saltville opened the discussion during the time the board allows residents to bring up issues.
Franklin told supervisors that many of the teachers are only making $200 or $300 more than they were eight years ago.
She also noted that the cost of the school system’s family health insurance plan, which comes in at about $1,400 a month, puts a burden on many teachers, especially those who are the sole income earner or only insurance carrier in a family.
“We’re looking for help,” Franklin told the supervisors.
They have an advocate in Supervisor Judy Wyant, who has taken her concerns about the salary scale to social media and a one-to-one meeting with Dr. Dennis Carter, school superintendent.
She was just as impassioned Tuesday when she talked about her fear that the county is losing experienced teachers — the educators in the middle of the salary scale because they can go to nearby localities and earn more.
Wyant spoke of hearing from one teacher who said she’s only making $40 more now that when she started in 1996 due to the insurance costs.
She spoke of another teacher who spent $3,000 of her own money on school supplies last year.
Then, Wyant noted that an aide with a degree makes just over $14,000, while an aide without a degree makes about $11,000 a year.
“Could we live on that?” Wyant asked.
While she said she knew the problems with the salary structure didn’t happen overnight and couldn’t be solved overnight, Wyant declared multiple times, “This is a crisis.”
None of her peers disputed Wyant’s assertion.
Board Chairman Todd Dishner, whose wife is an educator, told Franklin that he would be the first to stand by her side.
“Education runs deep in my family,” he said. Dishner told the gathered educators that their message wasn’t falling on deaf ears. “This board is pro-education,” he said.
Supervisor Curtis Rhea, whose wife is also an educator, concurred, reiterating, “It is a crisis.”
Rhea said he sometimes reflects that if his wife got a Washington County position it would be a “mortgage payment difference.”
Wyant contended that Smyth is losing many of its experienced teachers to neighboring Washington and Wythe counties, which offer higher salaries and lower insurance rates.
From a county perspective, however, Rhea said the pay scale is part of a bigger conversation.
That conversation, he said, includes consolidation. Smyth County is still operating as many schools as it did in 1999, when it served many more students.
Some state and federal funding for schools is based on the number of children enrolled. In its 2019-20 budget, Smyth County is projecting its lowest number of students in recent memory – 4,074.
That’s a drop of 95 students from this year and a decline of 718 from the 2009-10 year.
“I bleed orange,” Rhea said. “I don’t want to see Chilhowie and Northwood schools combine.” However, he continued, noting that he has children who are 6 and 8 years old, if consolidation is necessary to give them the same advantages as children in Wythe and Washington, he’s willing to consider it.
Rhea went on to say that it’s no secret that Smyth County doesn’t have the financial resources of some of its neighbors. He said it isn’t bisected by interstates 81 and 77 like Wythe County and doesn’t have Barter Theatre like Washington County.
On Wednesday, Carter said the School Board hasn’t discussed consolidation.
At the Tuesday meeting, Wyant urged her fellow supervisors to make a commitment to working with the School Board to solve the problem. “I really want to see movement.”
Wyant also asked Carter to confirm that no retaliation would occur against teachers who spoke out or attended the meeting. She said many were afraid to do so. Several nodded their heads as she spoke.
Carter offered his affirmation and praise for the teachers who came out. He urged them to also attend School Board meetings, including its public hearing on the budget. In his three years as superintendent, Carter said he doesn’t remember anyone commenting on the financial planning document during the School Board’s hearing.
The superintendent went on to laud the school system’s employees. “Our staff is truly dedicated. I am proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with them.”
He described an initiative just adopted by the School Board on Monday evening to study the salary situation. Carter said the board approved establishing salary scale study groups for the 2020-21 budget.
“The living piece is including our staff in these discussions,” he said.
Carter said that the plan is to include staff from across the salary steps in the discussions to gather a well-rounded perspective.
He reminded everyone that teachers and staff did receive a raise this year and the proposed budget for 2019-20 includes a 3 percent flat raise for teachers, a 3 percent raise for other groups and 3 percent raise for coaches.
For teachers, the school system based its flat raise on the highest step, giving each teacher a $1,784 raise. That’s 3 percent at the top of the wage scale, but it’s a higher percentage for those who make less.
For teachers at step 25, it’s a 3.66 percent raise; at step 20, it’s a 4.11 percent; at step 15, it’s 4.69 percent; at step 10, it’s 4.96 percent; and, at step 5, it’s a 5.14 percent increase.
Over the two years, Carter said, top level teachers have received a 5 percent raise, but again, depending where teachers fell on the salary scale, it amounted to as much as an 8.5 percent increase.
He also noted that the school system didn’t have a health-insurance rate increase this year and benefited from a slight decrease for next year.
Last year, he noted that the school system was able to provide a $300 bonus to staffers. By exceeding end-of-fiscal-year revenue by $150,000 and the board’s desire to support their employees, Carter said, full-time employees will get a $200 bonus at the end of this month, while part-time staffers will receive $100.
Carter told the supervisors that the School Board and administration knows that the salary scale needs work, but they are also excited and encouraged by working with teachers and the Board of Supervisors to address the situation.
At the end of the discussion, the supervisors adopted the school system’s $48.6 million proposed budget for 2019-20, which begins July 1. Wyant voted against the budget, citing her concerns with the inequality in the salary steps and the health insurance burden.
Rhea noted that the county’s funding for the school system comes in at 114 percent of the required local match.
At a special School Board meeting Wednesday evening, several board members expressed their disappointment, even anger, with Wyant’s vote.
Mac Buchanan said he was “appalled” at Wyant voting against the budget, which he said wasn’t just the teacher salary issue and health insurance but everything in the budget. He asked if anyone remembered a supervisor voting against the budget on the final vote. He said no one had in his eight years on the school board.
“I was pretty upset,” Buchanan said of Wyant’s vote. “After the meeting I caught her eye and mouthed, ‘I can’t believe you did that.’”
Buchanan said he understood it was a protest vote, but it is the supervisors who determine, along with state and federal funding, what teachers are paid and if raises can be given.
“We do the best we can with what we’re given, and stretch it as far as we can,” he said. “Next year we will put in a raise and they can put up or shut up,” he said.
“They say what we can pay for salaries,” said board member Paul Grinstead. “Doesn’t she understand that?”
The School Board approved the budget adopted by the supervisors in order to issue contracts to employees.
Linda Burchette contributed to this article.