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May 12, 2013

County schools grappling with salary inequities

Payscale problems.

A few years ago, it was an issue the Cullman County Board of Education never thought it’d have to deal with, at least not for a long time.

The school system was on the verge of going into the red and potentially coming under state stewardship in the late 2000s, after having its budget slashed by statewide proration. But, with the help of a countywide half-cent sales tax and land development initiative both passed by voters and expected to bring in an extra few million dollars per year, not to mention some overall belt-tightening by the board, the system is now more financially stable than it’s been in half a decade.

With the survival of the school system no longer in doubt, and the big questions slowly being answered, employees across the district want to dig into some of the little ones. Namely, they’re getting anxious to see some changes to a salary schedule that hasn’t seen many increases in the past several years.

Several groups have addressed the board in recent months, ranging from maintenance employees to head football coaches, asking the board to take a hard look at everything from the frequency of raises to the supplemental pay scale for extracurricular.

For superintendent Billy Coleman, they’re all worthy causes. But, how do you pick one area over several others to address first? That’s the question the school board now faces with a budget that is finally starting to show the slightest bit of wiggle room.

“There’s not one department that deserves this any more than the other, absolutely,” Coleman said. “If 10 groups have valid points, how do you pick the two or three, maybe, that you can address right now? It’s a hard question, because you can’t address all 10 of them at once right now. But, we want to reach a point in the near future when these can be fixed.”

The school board addressed some salary schedule issues with what they dubbed a fix-it committee over the past two years, which helped provide some structure to departments that had no set salary plan.

“That’s a big conversation, but we’ve been talking about the whole salary schedule for a long time,” systemwide finance director Randy Dunlap said.

Up until last year, the technology department had no consistent pay structure or set raise schedule, and the district lost a handful of highly-trained technology technicians to similar jobs at neighboring districts and the private sector for higher pay.

Using some outside funds separate from the general fund, the board instituted a higher salary schedule for the department, ranging from $31,200 to $54,120 starting pay for various positions, topping out at $69,252 for a network administrator with 27 years experience. Officials say the updates have provided stability for a division now tasked with updating infrastructure across all 29 schools.

“We’re in a much better situation now, and we’ve been able to recover from what we had lost at the district level, and added two additional technicians to try and get closer to where we need to be,” technology director Bruce Ellard said. “It’s definitely helping us to retain employees, and it gives us a better pool to select from.”

Those changes opened the door for several other departments to have their cases heard, and the board is still seeing data-filled presentations from employees who feel they might be stuck at their current level.

“We’ve had no raise in six years, and the last two or three years our take-home has actually gone down,” maintenance department employee Taft Dillashaw said. “We were going to ask for a percentage raise to get back to where we were, but what we’re really asking for is to make our salary schedule equal and fair to what’s been passed in recent years.”

The maintenance department starting pay scale ranges from $27,720 to $41,568, topping out at $44,724 for a foreman with 25 years experience. Dillashaw noted those pay levels fall behind many comparable school systems, and are well below salaries in the public sector, making it hard to attract and retain trained employees.

“Sadly, some are going to have to leave,” he said. “What kind of plumber are you going to find who will take a $10,000 pay cut to come and work in the school system?”

Groups of football coaches and principals have all had meetings with the board in recent months, and Coleman said the board has now effectively taken over the fix-it committee’s role. Once the state budget is set later this month, Coleman said the board will review all the requests and develop a plan to hopefully address the payscale issues later this year.

“We’ll take a look at all those and see exactly what the cost would be,” he said. “They all have really good reasons, but we’re still committed to keeping our fund balance moving in a positive direction. It’ll probably be a case of the board looking at all of that this summer.”

School board member Chris Carter equated the overall challenge to slowly wading out of the ocean when you’ve gone in too deep. Holding his hand at eye level, Carter said the system isn’t “underwater, right here” anymore, then slid his hand down to his neck.

“We’ve made it to here now,” he added. “But, that doesn’t mean we’re out of the deep water just yet.”

Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at trentm@cullmantimes.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.

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