by Allison Ross, @allisonSross –
Jefferson County Public Schools’ superintendent said she thought people would “celebrate” the recent salary study that said the state’s largest school district is paying a “premium” in salaries to its employees.
But instead, “it got interpreted differently,” Superintendent Donna Hargens said during a public forum Monday with Management Advisory Group Inc., the company that conducted the comprehensive salary review.
That review, the results of which were shared with the public in April, found that JCPS is paying some employees higher salaries than comparable school districts. JCPS said that “premium” pay meant the district is paying $105 million or more extra each year in salaries.
Hargens said Monday that she initially thought that the finding that JCPS had competitive salaries would be lauded, saying that it was good to hear that “competitive salaries are a problem we don’t have to solve” and that the question instead is on how to “maintain and sustain” a competitive salary structure for the long term while also meeting other needs in the district.
But instead, there was immediate outcry from many employees and community members over the study, with many questioning the methodology of the study, particularly on which school districts were chosen for comparison with JCPS.
A large part of the uproar over the salary study in April came because district officials said they planned to later recommend to the board that JCPS not give step raises or cost of living increases in the 2016-17 school year for any employee making more than $14 an hour as “market reconciliation.”
JCPS later clarified that all salary changes were subject to union negotiation and that no recommendation of a pay freeze was imminently forthcoming. But many employees said they remained concerned and insulted.
Hoping to provide more information and clarification on the salary study, Hargens brought MAG in Monday for two public forums to give them a chance to further discuss the study.
Carolyn Long, executive vice president of MAG, stressed to the three dozen or so attendees of the two meetings that not every JCPS job was considered over-market.
She also said her organization suggested to JCPS officials and to an advisory group the district convened to look at the study that salaries that exceed the range maximum should be frozen. She said she also suggested that non-instructional positions should not be indexed on teacher salaries but instead perhaps be merit or performance-based.
Long said that thanks to a number of policy decisions over the years, wages in JCPS have shifted higher during recent years than she would typically see.
“You’ve really seen the higher end of the salary scale go out of proportion relative to the bottom end of the scale,” JCPS Chief Business Officer Tom Hudson said.
Hudson said Monday that these higher wages have put JCPS out of balance, saying that “we have a really serious situation now … we don’t have enough to do things in school now because we have this imbalance. Kids aren’t getting what they need in terms of resources.”
Hudson said the idea of the salary freeze was to give the district a chance to pause and look further into the study and possible options.
But some of the attendees Monday asked why salaries, particularly teacher salaries, couldn’t be left alone while the district figured out what to do.
Others also questioned the study’s methodology, asking pointed questions about why some of the comparison districts were in states that don’t have collective bargaining and querying whether factors like teachers’ payments into pensions were considered.
Long said the study was done on base salary compensation. She acknowledged that other districts could have been chosen, but said she didn’t expect to see a “sea-change difference” by doing so.
One teacher angrily asked whether teacher working conditions were factored into the comparisons, saying his job has gotten exponentially more difficult due to student misbehavior in recent years. Others noted that Kentucky teachers are required to get a master’s degree and have to pay off student loans.
One woman, who said she was with JCPS’ nutrition services, asked about the $14/hour cutoff in its discussion of its pay freeze, saying that she didn’t understand how some of her colleagues who make “$13.95 an hour are underpaid and $14.05 is overpaid.” She also questioned how a plan to bring performance pay to non-instructional employees would work, saying that some principals don’t know the names of their cafeteria workers.
Teacher April Raines said she was insulted by the district’s discussion of a salary freeze and by certain comments from JCPS officials, saying she regularly works more than the paid seven hours a day and pays for her students’ classroom materials out of her own pocket.
“I’m outraged because I got disrespected,” she said.
This is the first time JCPS has had a salary review since 1979. Hargens said that best practice is to have such a study every two decades.
JCPS is expected to begin bargaining with its unions this summer.
Reporter Allison Ross can be reached at 502-582-4241. Follow the Courier-Journal’s education team at Facebook.com/SchooledCJ.