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County budget not end of salary debate

(June 5, 2015) Money for employee salary increases was not included in Worcester County’s 2016 budget, but that doesn’t mean the discussion is over for teachers.

County employees, on the other hand, have little choice but to grin and bear it. Like the board of education employees, county workers also operate on a step system. Their annual base salaries are expected to increase with favorable reviews and additional experience. But like the proposed funding for teacher pay raises, the money for county employee pay increases was spiked in the budgeting process.

County Administrator Harold Higgins said the people he oversees realize the county’s situation and haven’t protested in the ways the teachers have. Worcester teachers have begun working to the exact terms of their contract and are expected to continue to the end of this school year, June 18.

“I was hoping for a better turnout, but I’m confident the Board of Education will work with us,” Beth Shockley-Lynch, president of the Worcester County Teachers Association said, “I give Commissioners Church and Mitrecic credit for their comments, but we have better relationships with the board [of Education] than here [at the county].”

Commissioners Bud Church and Joe Mitrecic voted against the fiscal 2016 budget, due in no small part to the elimination of salary increases for employees.

The county commissioners allocate funds to the Board of Education in 13 separate areas, one of which is employee salaries. The teachers association negotiates pay based upon the salary allocation. With the county’s approval, the school board could move funding from one area to another, and while this is usually done at the end of the calendar year, there is no rule preventing that from happening now. That assumes the money can be found.

Indeed, all seven of the county commissioners said they would listen to a proposal developed by the board of education.

“If they take responsibility for the lost services, I’d be fine with it,” Mitrecic said, “Can they cut out all after-school programs? No, but I understand if that’s what they need to do. If there are no teachers it doesn’t matter if we have the programs or not.”

Commissioners Chip Bertino, Ted Elder, Diana Purnell and Merrill Lockfaw said they would listen to a proposal.

“I’ve always advocated that the board of education should operate within their budget. I’ll take a look at it, but it’s got to be requested,” Commissioner Jim Bunting said.

Church also had conditions.

“As long as it doesn’t interfere with the operation of their facilities or the curriculum, I’d be OK. I’d entertain their proposal but my vote would depend on their plan,” he said.

The schools, however, maintain there are only so many places to get the money.

“With 90 percent of our operating budget directed toward salaries, benefits and bus contracts,” Chief Financial Officer Vincent Tolbert said, “the choices of where to realize reductions are limited. We have to allocate revenues toward operations and fixed expenditures such as heating, cooling and electricity. There are no options there. We would likely be forced to look at position reduction.”

To reduce positions, the board would need to negotiate with the teachers’ union and the Worcester County Education Support Personnel Association, the non-teacher board of education employee union.

“We present a budget to county commissioners that reflects what we need to sustain excellence and to fairly compensate our employees. Our budget proposal has been negotiated with the WCTA and the WCESPA,” Worcester County School Superintendent Jerry Wilson said. “Since the commissioners have passed a budget which does not fund our needs, we must go back to the negotiation table and reach another agreement.”


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