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Despite pressure, teachers unlikely to get ‘step’ raises

(May 15, 2015) Worcester County public school teachers continue to await the final verdict on the possibility of salary increases this year, even though it appears they may be hoping against hope.

While they are likely to receive a cost-of-living adjustment, teachers are also entitled to “step” increases, or raises besides the COLA that is in this year’s budget, under the contract with the Board of Education.

“Until recently, the step has never been in question,” Worcester County Teachers Association President Beth Shockley-Lynch said. “We want movement but ideally we’d like to be made whole.”

Citing financial constraints, the county did not provide step funding in its budgets for fiscal 2010, 2011 and 2012. Teachers are earning their salaries as if those years didn’t exist, according to Shockley-Lynch.

The fear, she said, is that these accrued steps can translate into substantial increases in salary elsewhere should a teacher leave Worcester to teach in a nearby county where all their years in service, degree advancements – and earned steps – could be applied.

Salary steps vary in amount by years and milestones. Up until year 10, steps increase by about $1,000 per year or less. After 10 years each step is worth about $2,000.

Several teachers during the recent public hearing on the budget said these steps are guaranteed by contract. That is true as far as it goes, because the contract is between the teachers association and the school board, which receives its funding from the Worcester County Commissioners.

“The commissioners put money into 13 categories for the Board of Education,” Shockley-Lynch said. “Whatever is in the portion for salaries is what we have to negotiate with,” she said.

The commissioners, as a consequence, must perform a balancing act when allocating funds.

“The total estimated cost to place all employees on the correct step beginning July 1, 2015, would be $3,792,109. This would restore all lost steps and include the current FY 2016 step,” Barb Witherow, spokeswoman for the schools, said.

Although not discussed at the commissioners’ budget work session on Tuesday, there is no line item for step increases in the commissioners’ proposed budget. There is a line funding a 2.5 percent salary increase to begin Jan. 2016 at a cost of about $748,000, but it’s unclear if this is just for teachers or all board of education employees. The commissioners may yet eliminate some or all of this proposed funding.

Witherow said except for an adjustment in 2013 or 2014, the last time employees saw a COLA before 2015 was in 2009. This mirrors what county employees earn relative to their base salaries.

The commissioners have some discretion in how funds are spent or how to raise money, however, urgent needs do arise and what is technically called discretionary is anything but.

For example, the county’s tax software has not been updated since 1998. The county is down to one mostly inoperable snowplow. Roads must be repaved, outdated technology must be replaced or upgraded including phones and data storage and there is always a need for vehicles across divisions. These upgrades, according to the proposed 2016 budget, could all be fully funded for less than the teachers’ salary request.

Meanwhile, Wicomico schools are advertising for about 20 teacher positions on their web site, and Somerset schools list about 10 openings. Worcester County schools list no current openings.

Worcester County teachers hired at the first step with a bachelor’s degree and standard certification earn $42,222 in their first year.

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