Area schools balance salaries and other spending

Legislation, funding hard to make ends meet

Sarah Pinion, new superintendent of Marion Independent School District
Sarah Pinion, new superintendent of Marion Independent School District

Once the final hires are complete, Superintendent Sarah Pinion estimates that the Marion Independent School District’s school board will have cut $700,000 from the fiscal year 2015 general fund.

The school board also will have given instructors and full-time certified administrators, including Pinion, salary increases of almost 4.4 percent.

“It just traditionally has been whatever the settlement is for the teachers, is what we use for the other groups,” Pinion said, noting that 2014-15 is the second year of a two-year contract agreement for teachers that was negotiated before administrators confronted a $900,000 shortfall.

Numbers from the Marion district show that, despite the raises, salary and benefits spending overall will have declined — $244,947 for administrators and $21,792 for teachers — between the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years due to eliminated positions. To the superintendent, the salary increases in the face of budget cuts remains “in some respects, a fairness issue.”

“In reducing some positions, we’re asking some people to do more,” Pinion said. “So when you’re asking people to take on more responsibilities and more workload, is that right to say, ‘We’re going to compensate you less or hold you to the same compensation level? I think it’s asking a lot of an employee and I also believe that naturally, every year, there’s to be more things that are expected of schools, teachers, of any employees in a district, based on local conditions, state conditions and federal conditions.”

A similar scenario played out in the Cedar Rapids Community School District, where administrators and board members aimed to hit a $6 million target through cuts and new revenue for the fiscal year 2015 budget. At the same time, administrators received package increases of 3.32 percent while teachers’ settlement grew by 3.51 percent.

What’s trending

The Iowa Association of School Boards is reporting a state trend of 3.66 percent for teacher raises with a new-money growth average — calculated in part by the Legislature and factoring in enrollment changes — of 3.12 percent, while the same document shows Cedar Rapids receiving 5.34 percent and Marion getting 3.89 percent in new state funding.

“We aim not to exceed the district’s actual new money from the state. That’s our goal. I think that’s districts’ goal across the state. We’re also stuck with the fact that we also have to look at what the trend is for districts across the state. If we were to go to arbitration, that’s what the arbitrator would look at,” said Jill Cirivello, executive director of human resources for the district, whose compensation is covered in the administrator agreement. “So often the state trend exceeds a district’s actual allowable growth, so it’s difficult to stay within that budget. We try to stay close.”

That challenge chafes Dan Barkley, vice president of the Marion school board.“The collective bargaining law the way it’s written in Iowa doesn’t take into affect at all your ability to pay. It’s all based on comparability,” he said. “The way that law is written it isn’t sustainable.” The specter of arbitration, in his view, is a considerable hurdle.

“We would lose and lose badly,” he said. We’re really handicapped in trying to negotiate those salaries down.”

During leaner years of low or even no state funding increases, Cedar Rapids still has managed to give increases to instructors and administrators.

“When you don’t have the new money growth from the state but you still have a state trend, so you’re trying to balance trying to stay competitive with staff when (other districts’) new money might be higher,” she said. “If you don’t get any raise at all and the cost of living increases ... it’s kind of seen or viewed as a decrease in salary.”

There’s also an aspect of competition.

“You want to retain the good staff you have,” Cirivello said. “If they’re going to another district that’s going to pay them $5,000 more, you might not retain that good teacher or administrator,” she said. “Another reason to do that is to attract the best applicants. ... I’m sure there’s a variety of factors people consider but if everything looks about the same, why wouldn’t you take the offer with more money?”

Cirivello said it has taken hard work but employees have been willing to compromise and take the district’s financial situation into account during those tighter years and are willing to be flexible.

“It really is a wonderful thing that they’re helping us maintain that line with new money,” she said. “They should be commended for that.”

Tammy Wawro, president of the Iowa State Education Association and former president of the Cedar Rapids Education Association, was a resolution team facilitator for the district and spent years on the teachers’ bargaining team. She said money often is the last consideration during those negotiations. “Bargaining is so much more than money,” she said.

Mind the gap

Wawro said that there are a number of other factors — such as time off, class size and safety or health concerns — that are discussed before or instead of dollar amounts. She also noted that while percentage increases can seem large, sometimes they belie rising insurance costs that may not be addressed in a settlement.

“People have a real fallacy that if you’re a public employee you have this real grandiose insurance policy,” she said. “Any increase in that comes out of that package as well. When you see a 3 percent salary increase, that’s everything. ... If your cost of insurance went up (by more), you actually lost money.”

To Barkley, teacher salaries become the tail that wags the dog. Pinion estimated that employee pay and benefits are 80 percent of Marion’s general fund expenditures. Similar to her, Barkley agreed that setting administrator raises in line with teachers’ increases is a matter of fairness. However, Barkley said there’s an interest in keeping administrators’ paychecks fatter than instructors.

“If you don’t keep doing with that percentage is you keep getting to a point now where the highest paid teachers are making more than our lowest-paid administrators,” Barkley said. “You have to keep a gap there or you’re going to lose out on good administrators and good administrators do make a difference. ... You have to keep an incentive there or people aren’t going to go back to school invest the time to be in administration.”

In Wawro’s view, percentage increases among administrators — whose salaries skew higher — are tough to compare to teachers and their traditionally lower salaries.

“Even if everyone got 3 percent, it’s still a huge salary difference when a superintendent gets a 3 percent increase on $100,000 and a teacher gets 3 percent on $40,000,” she said. “I think when we were getting 4 percent allowable growth and money was flush, people didn’t care.”

The broader issue, Wawro said, extends beyond pay stubs and into what she sees as insufficient state education funding.

“We need to spend so much time figuring out how to do the best we can with no money,” she said. “In theory it’s not about salary when you’re doing that. Our fuel costs go up. All of our costs go up. Our vendors’ prices go up. It’s everything. It’s not just about salary. When you’re looking at some of our urban districts who honestly need more staff to work with English Language Learner populations, students with behaviors, students in poverty, that’s staff, not just salaries.”

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