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Teachers ‘walk in’ in protest

(May 29, 2015) While nothing will be finalized until the Worcester County Commissioners formally adopt their 2016 budget next week, reaction has been strong to their plan to eliminate funding for mid-year cost-of-living adjustments for teachers, let alone the step increases called for in the contract between the Board of Education and the Worcester County Teacher’s Association.

On Wednesday morning, about 45 teachers at Stephen Decatur High School staged a “walk in,” where they ceremonially entered the school together at the required time of 7:45 a.m. and planned to walk out in the same fashion at dismissal time, according to Beth Shockley-Lynch, president of the teachers’ union.

Shockley-Lynch said a similar plan had emerged at Buckingham Elementary School, and stressed that the participating teachers developed these plans independent of union action.

“In my opinion, I am glad these teachers are taking action, and it’s unfortunate we’ve gotten to this point,” Shockley-Lynch said.

In establishing the public school budget, the county commissioners decide how to fill 13 separate areas of the Board of Education’s budget, of which one is employee salary. The teachers’ union can then negotiate a contract based on that figure. Teachers expect a step increase, or a merit and experience-based bump, annually and sign a contract to that effect.

The county commissioners, however, have and intend to use an escape clause that allows them not to fund the step increases because of financial limitations. The county employed this measure in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Some of the commissioners also thought that the Board of Education could, in its own budgeting process, find efficiencies that would free money for salary increases.

“If the county commissioners decide to fund the school system at a Maintenance of Effort level Worcester County Public Schools will not be provided adequate funding to fulfill its contractual obligations to fund salary schedules,” Superintendent Dr. Jerry Wilson said. “This is a disappointing development. Our staff works tirelessly to meet the needs of our students. It hurts not to be able to recognize them with a reasonable pay increase.”

Maintenance of Effort is a state law that requires counties to provide funding to schools at least equal to the previous year’s level. The law became necessary after several Maryland counties gutted school budgets to meet spending targets.

A petition, started Tuesday afternoon by Decatur student Zainab Mirza, urged the commissioners to reconsider their position. At press time it had gained nearly 1,000 signatures.

“My understanding is that SDHS teachers wore blue and white and entered the school building together this morning to show solidarity for pay raises. We believe that our proposed FY 2016 budget — which seeks one step and a 2.5 percent COLA — should be funded by our county government. Our teachers and staff need and deserve a pay raise,” Barb Witherow, spokeswoman for the schools, said.

A majority of the commissioners reported having heard plenty from the public on the topic through social media, e-mails and calls.

Teachers do have options, some of which are potentially lucrative depending on their circumstances. They can, for instance, change jobs to other counties and have their skipped steps restored.

For example, a teacher in Worcester County with a master’s degree on step 10 makes a base salary of $53,190. If that teacher had worked at the schools through the time when steps were interrupted their base salary would be $59,650. That teacher could accept a position in Wicomico or Somerset, have their steps restored and earn $59,706 or $60,315 in base salary immediately.

It’s not just neighboring counties, either. One teacher, speaking on condition of anonymity, is considering making a move into a Delaware school system. This teacher is currently on step 8 with a master’s degree, earning him about $50,000 annually in base salary. In the district he is considering, he would potentially be hired at step 14 and earn in excess of $63,000 in base salary.

“It’s hard for me to start something new again,” he said, “I love my school. I’m holding out as long as I can, but we’re not getting steps and everything costs more.”

The teacher said he “loves Worcester County and his school,” but because of a family situation he needs to “start earning more.”

“The Board of Education does a lot we don’t need to do,” Shockley-Lynch said, “and everything takes manpower. Do we eliminate football?”

Shockley-Lynch said even if the school board finds money within their budget if adopted in its current form, the county would still need to approve changes in funding levels between the 13 categories.

“They’re going to have to be OK with the backlash if we don’t have things,” she said.

School employees are not the only ones not seeing a salary increase in the proposed 2016 budget. County employees, also operating on a step program, will not see a raise in 2016, and skipped the same steps as the teachers.

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