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Teacher pay-cut plan raises concerns

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BY AMELIA HARPER
Staff Writer

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Some teachers in Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools reportedly wore black on Thursday as a silent protest against the Finance Committee’s recommendation on Monday that 35 percent of their local supplement pay be reduced for the remainder of the academic year.

The recommendation came as a last-ditch effort to try to save $795,000 to balance this year’s budget by June and stave off the need for the state government to step in and take over the school district’s financial affairs.

While the five members of the finance committee unanimously approved the measure after some deliberation and hand-wringing, the full 11-person board will need to approve the reduction in pay at their next meeting before the reduction takes effect.

While not all school teachers wore black on Thursday, the mood of many of them have been dark this week since news broke that their paychecks could be cut an average of $175 a month for the next few months.

“We are upset,” one teacher told the Telegram on condition of anonymity. “We are supposed to be paid in just a few days and they are taking a couple hundred dollars from our paycheck without any time to prepare for it.”

The recommendation to the board states that reduction would apply to paychecks in March through June for 10-month employees, including most teachers. However, in a email interview on Friday with the Telegram, Superintendent Shelton Jefferies clarified that March checks will not be affected.

“The full board has not deliberated nor taken action on this recommendation. As a result, there will be no impact to supplement pay for certified staff for March,” Jefferies said.

Whether this means the amount of the reduction will be increased for the remaining months of the academic year to reach the $795,000 goal or whether the school district will find another way to make up those funds is not yet clear. But Jefferies stressed his discomfort with the need to impact teacher pay in this way.

“I am fully aware of the stress and anxiety caused by the current recommendations to the board. Please know that staff and I are continuing to explore additional recommendations. The last thing that the Board of Education wants to do is harm our teachers. However, we are working from a very limited list of difficult options,” Jefferies said.

Some people in the community have raised concerns that Jefferies made these recommendations knowing that his own pay would not be affected. At Monday’s meeting, Jefferies made it clear that his supplement pay would be affected. However, a clause in his contract states “at no time shall the superintendent’s salary be decreased during the term of his contract.”

An email to the school board’s attorney to clarify the matter was not answered by presstime. However, Patricia Hollingsworth, chief public information officer for the school district, said “the proposed system-wide modification would include the superintendent.”

Under the superintendent’s current contract, his $172,500 annual salary includes $40,812 in local supplement pay. If the system wide reduction in pay is approved and applies to Jefferies, he could lose more than $4,700.

State Sen. Rick Horner, R-Nash, told the Telegram that he is concerned about the legality of the supplement cut for all employees under a contract and feels that issue needs to be explored before the school board makes a decision.

“In my opinion, I don’t think it is possible to unilaterally change the terms of a contract without violating North Carolina contract law. I don’t know of any general statute that would supersede such a contract either,” Horner said.

While media outlets have reported that the budget gap for Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools ranges from $2.4 million to $2.8 million, Jefferies told the Telegram that the remaining shortfall is $796,577.61.

“This is the amount that will be saved if the 35 percent district-wide supplement adjustment is approved by the Board of Education,” Jefferies said. “The local gap consists of $400,000 as a result of 2018-19 North Carolina salary increases for locally funded staff.”

The rest of the original budget shortfall mentioned to the school board in October has been made up by other measures, such as staff transfers to positions that can receive funding from other sources.

“The district has re-purposed federal funding surplus dollars and recommended a series of staffing transfers to reconcile the budget shortfall,” Jefferies said.

Some members of the community recently have claimed that the Title I federal funds have been mismanaged to cover the budget shortfall, but Jefferies said all actions with Title 1 funding have been legal and above board.

“The district instituted a freeze on federal funds on Feb. 20,” Jefferies said. “This measure was taken two weeks prior to the typical limit for federal purchases that is required by the government. This meant that any unencumbered funds were frozen. The total amount impacted was $417,354.00. The use of these funds is in alignment with the Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools application for federal funds. It would be illegal to use this funding otherwise.”

Some teachers have also questioned how the district finances reached this point.

“Why are we in this predicament in the first place?” one school teacher who asked not to be identified said. “I feel like there are other measures that could have been implemented and ways the money could have been better spent.”

Jefferies points to a number of reasons, including the unexpected state-mandated raises and the loss of $200,000 the district was expecting to receive to help with the renovation of the new CITI High School. Those promised funds never came to fruition.

Another factor was the transition between the district’s former Chief Finance Officer Susan Blackwell, who retired last June, and the interim CFO Sheila Wallace, who primarily has a background in education. The district is still looking for a permanent replacement for Blackwell.

“We have had an interim CFO in place since the retirement of Susan Blackwell. Susan Blackwell was a full participant and over the composition and presentation of the 2018-19 budget proposal to both the Board of Education and Nash County commissioners,” Jefferies said. “During the transition of our interim CFO, additional items were identified that were not included in the budget request prepared in the spring.”

Jefferies said the school district has been trying to address the shortfall for months. In October, Jefferies recommended the reduction in force of 13 employees to help meet the shortfall 

“However, the Board of Education decided to table the recommendation pending our annual audit. This coincided with a Board of Education election which added three new members. Since then, our staff has prepared new options without consideration of a reduction in force,” Jefferies said.

The supplement, which is designed to attract and retain district employees, is expected to spring back to normal in coming school year, Jefferies said. It is not known how the temporary reduction in the supplement will affect future hiring, but former school board member Wendy Wilson said she feels the issue needs to be considered.

“This discussion is already affecting the morale of our teachers and I am concerned it will also impact the hiring of new teachers. We are already facing a shortage of teachers and we can’t afford for any more good teachers to leave,” Wilson said.

The full board is expected to make a decision on the matter at the April 1 board meeting.

 

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