Buildings Or An Extra Pay Raise?
by Alex Saitta
April 30, 2006
Question: Alex, what is the top priority for next yearís school budget?
Alex: Our buildings were over-crowded last year. They are worse now. State and local revenues are growing, so we have an opportunity to renovate six schools, eliminate 45% of our portable classrooms, and do it without raising tax rates. That should be the first line of the new budget.
Question: District leadership wants to spend the new revenue on a big pay raise instead.
Alex: Last year when they wanted to raise taxes, it was all about the children and getting them out of portables. Now that they have some extra money, suddenly, buildings are no longer the top priority. Now it is a pay raise. Under the district proposal, many administrators will get $4,000 to $5,000 pay raises.
Question: Can you give us some examples?
Alex: One administrator in the district office makes $92,100, and is slated for a $4,900 pay raise. One principal makes $81,800 and is slated for a $4,800 raise. How will that help the children? I think most of that money should be spent on buildings instead.
Question: What do you think is going on?
Alex: District leadership has lost sight of the children, in particular, getting them out of our broken down portable classrooms. Also, they didnít hear the voters on November 8, ďFix the school buildings, and do it with the millions we already give you!Ē
Question: Donít they get automatic pay raises?
Alex: Each year the typical teacher automatically gets an increase for another year of service, plus a state mandated increase. For example, the average teacher now earns $43,039. Next year, for another year of service, her pay will rise by 2%. The state mandated pay increase will add 2.6% to that. In sum, the average teacher will get a 4.6% or $2,000 increase, at least.
Question. At least?
Alex: Yes. If we do nothing, the average teacher will get a 4.6% or $2,000 increase.
Question: So then...
Alex: District leadership wants to add 2.5% on top of that. That is what we disagree on. I think the extra 2.5% should be spent on buildings instead.
Question: Didnít you oppose the sales tax referendum last year to fix the buildings?
Alex: Me and most of the 10,000 residents voted against the sales tax hike, not fixing the buildings. We thought the problem could be addressed without a tax hike. Lo and behold, we now have an opportunity to get rid of a number of portables and do it without raising tax rates. It is something every one should agree on.
Question: Can you give us the details of your proposal?
Alex: The average teacher would get the 4.6% pay raise. The extra 2.5% would go to buildings. Our financial analyst said, with that money, plus with what we have now, we could do $60 million in renovations, without raising tax rates.
Question: You said we could fix six schools. Which ones?
Alex: The middle schools are the most over-crowded. With the $60 million we could renovate Gettys, Pickens, and Edwards middle schools. We could also build a new Liberty Middle, expand Dacusville Middle, and renovate the vocational school. That would eliminate 45% of our 103 portable classrooms.
Question: So the choices are spend the new revenue on buildings or on an extra pay raise of 2.5%?
Alex: Yes and I choose the students and getting them out of portables. The buildings in my district are extremely overcrowded. For example, Pickens Middle and Pickens High have as many portables as the seven schools in Easley combined. I hope you understand why I want to spend the extra 2.5% on buildings instead.
Question: Is a 4.6% increase enough to retain existing teachers?
Alex: I think so. The average teacher in Greenville ($43,671) makes only $632 more a year than in Pickens ($43,039). Thatís only $3 more a day. Living in Greenville, or commuting there everyday, is more expensive than that. The average teacher in Oconee ($42,692) makes less than Pickensí average. In Anderson 1 ($43,430) and Anderson 4 ($43,042), the average teacher makes a bit more.
Question: What is the teacher turnover rate in Pickens?
Alex: Our competitive salaries and our lower cost of living are one reason why our annual turnover rate (5.5%) is lower than surrounding districtís like Greenville (12.5%), Anderson 1 (12.1%), Oconee (8.2%), and Anderson 4 (7.9%).
Question: Can we attract new teachers out of college?
Alex: Pay isnít the big problem. Greenville is offering college graduates a new classrooms to teach in. We are offering them a broken down portable. Facilities or working conditions is where we have the most catching up to do.
Question: Alex, under your alternative, is it true teachers with more than 22 years of service will not get the entire 4.6% increase?
Alex: The typical teacher, or about 3 out of 4, will get a 4.6% raise. One in 4 will get less, yes. The pay scale, which was designed by the state legislature, tops out at 22 years. From 0 to 22 years of service, each year, a teacher automatically gets the 2% step increase. A teacher with more than 22 years, stops getting the step increase. The teacher with more than 22 years experience is paid an average of $50,534. Under my proposal, that teacher will get a 2.6% or $1,250 increase. Only 316 of our 1096 teachers have more than 22 years experience.
Question: So the system doesnít appreciate teachers with more than 22 years experience?
Alex: It does. All district employees get generous pensions at retirement. Normal retirement is 28 years. (Early retirement is 25 years.) Letís say someone started teaching at 24 years old, with a Masters degree. After 28 years of teaching, she is now earning $50,534 a year. She can retire at 52 years of age, and her first annual retirement payment will be $25,000. Her retirement payment will grow each year by the cost of living adjustment. Letís say she lives until she is 82. Over her 30 years of retirement, sheíll collect $1.1 million. Plus, sheíll get medical and dental benefits.
Question: Back to the teachers with more than 22 years of experience...
Alex: 316 of the 1096 teachers have more than 22 years experience. About 200 of them are on TERI, so they are working, gettting paid 100% of their salary, plus collecting their retirement pension at the same time. The fact that some will not get the extra 2% step increase because they have topped out on the pay scale isn't unfair, because most of them are also collecting their retirement pay now. Like I said, that is about an extra $25,000 a year, on top of their annual salary.
Question: What is TERI?
Alex: At 28 years that teacher has an option to continue to work and get paid her $50,534 salary, plus she can start drawing her annual retirement benefit of $25,000 a year. The teacher can do that for the last five years of her career. Residents in Pickens County appreciate our long-time teachers so much, they give them retirement packages they donít get themselves.
Question: Most donít even get pensions today. I donít know any company that offers something like TERI.
Alex: True, less than 20% of companies pay pensions, and that figure is declining. We appreciate our long-time teachers so much, we give them retirement packages and options most of us donít get ourselves. Retired teachers and school district employees earn between 50% and 60% of their salary in retirement. Plus, their last five years they can TERI. Who gets 50% to 60% pensions and the last few years, continue to work and draw their retirement at the same time?
Question: Will we be able to give the extra 2.5% pay raise the following year?
Alex: Revenue should continue to grow, so we should be able to give the extra raise in August 2007. Instead, Iíd like to see some financial management by the district leadership. They should examine the existing budget of $125 million. By cutting $2 million in low priorities and waste, we could fund the pay raise now. This way we could give the pay raise in August 2006 and move forward with the buildings too, all with no tax increase. Thatís financial management.
Question: What is the chance of that?
Alex: Slim. District leadership does little financial management of its existing budget. When there is a new need, they donít look for the money in their existing budget. Instead, they look to fund it with a tax increase or the natural growth in revenue. Given revenue grows most every year and it is easy to raise property tax rates, there is little incentive to reduce low priority expenditures or eliminate budget waste. Think about it, if your pay was rising a good amount every year or you could snap your fingers to raise your salary, would you cut-out your weekly massage to buy the new washing machine you needed?
Question: Of course not. Anything else?
Alex: The schools have needs. However, the average worker in this county makes only $27,000 a year. Plus, we have a lot of seniors on fixed incomes. The financial management of the school system needs to improve, and to do that we need more people with financial degrees and experience in the district office and sitting on the school board.
Additionally, it is not an issue of worth or we don't value teachers and administrators. When a husband tells his family they can't vacation in Florida this year, because money is tight, it doesn't mean he doesn't love his family or doesn't value them. Likely, it is because they need the money to fix the leaky roof.
Question: What is your response to critics who say by presenting these facts, you donít support education?
Alex: I support the 4.6% pay increase. The extra money should be spend on renovations and eliminating 45% of our portables. The following year we can consider the extra 2.5% pay raise. My two girls will spend 13 years in our schools. We need competitive salaries AND better buildings to attract and retain qualified teachers. Also, my alternative directly helps the children by getting many of them out of these broken down portable classrooms, plus it helps the teachers at our most overcrowded schools, by giving them classrooms and getting them out of portables.