County rejects teacher raises

(May 22, 2015) Stressing that it was a purely financial decision and not a comment on teachers’ abilities or achievements, the Worcester County Commissioners on Tuesday removed funding from the fiscal 2016 budget that would have paid for a 2.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment starting in January 2016 for teachers and county employees.

Commissioner Joe Mitrecic, whose wife is a teacher in Worcester County schools, abstained from the vote. Commissioner Ted Elder, a bus driver for the schools, did not abstain.

Commissioner Bud Church was the lone holdout.

“For the first time in history, we’ve lost six teachers to Somerset County,” he said, adding that in all of his years in public service he “never, ever” thought that would happen. One of the teachers who left, Church said, was a former Worcester County Teacher of the Year.

Sources within the Board of Education and the Worcester County Teachers Association have identified at least two additional teachers considering making a jump to a neighboring county because of salary concerns.

Worcester teachers and county employees are paid on a step scale. Each year, if the employee meets certain requirements, they are expected to advance one step in pay grade. The amount varies by step but for the first 10 years or so the raise is nearly $1,000 per year. Teachers in Worcester County missed steps in 2010, 2011, 2012 and now, 2015.

Somerset and Wicomico county teachers also missed steps, Beth Shockley-Lynch, president of the teacher’s union, said. But, she continued, they have since been “made whole.”

A teacher in Worcester County, who has missed steps due to the Worcester County Commissioners’ appropriation, can have those steps restored to a neighboring county’s scale by accepting a position there.

For example, a teacher in Worcester on step 15 next year will have skipped four steps and be paid on Worcester’s scale of step 11. That teacher can go to another county and be paid at step 15.

The steps aren’t universal and each county sets its own rate. Sometimes it makes financial sense to make the jump, other times is does not as the current scale in Worcester may exceed what the neighboring county pays even at a higher step.

“No one here thinks the teachers of Worcester County don’t do a damn good job,” Commissioner Chip Bertino, who made the motion to zero out the funding for salaries, said, “We have to deal with this head-on. We can’t kick the can down the road.

Church said a number of county employees make minimum wage, and with coming raises in taxes and insurance, the median income of the county is falling.

“There are people making minimum wage not working for the county who are not seeing raises,” Bertino countered.

“I agree we’re in tough times, but we’ve got four CPAs who’ve said the county can afford this. They’re the experts,” Church said.

Lots of people, Commission Vice President Merrill Lockfaw said, need and deserve raises and aren’t going to get them. “We can’t play Robin Hood to take from the poor and give to the Board of Education,” he said.

The county will fund the approximately 6 percent increase in healthcare costs associated with moving to a different health care plan, and not pass that cost onto employees, according to Bertino’s motion.

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