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Slashing salaries for school workers a ‘tough decision’

For the past two weeks, a pair of school officials traveled from school to school meeting with a number of Halifax County School System employees who were being informed about adjustments to their salaries being proposed in the upcoming contract year.

Halifax County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Merle Herndon reluctantly answered questions from The Gazette-Virginian regarding the possible salary adjustments for school employees Tuesday afternoon.

“I’ll work with you if you work with me,” Herndon said when informed of the nature of the telephone call.

The superintendent refused to comment on how school board members or administrators developed the method for deciding which employees’ salaries to reduce or increase.

According to Herndon, she cannot make “any comment because it hadn’t been voted on” and won’t be voted on until Monday’s board meeting.

School board members voted last week to send Director of Finance Jay Camp and Executive Director for Administration Valdivia Marshall into the schools to talk with affected personnel beginning Tuesday, March 12. 

These employees were selected based on inconsistencies in their salaries, Herndon said Tuesday.

“We sent an email out to everyone explaining that,” added Herndon.

The superintendent confirmed these meetings being held between employees and Marshall and Camp were solely to discuss salary adjustments and were informational only.

Marshall and Camp are expected to bring their recommendations for employees’ salary adjustments to the full school board for final approval when it meets Monday.

“We have spent a lot of time going through personnel records…everything is being looked at consistently,” said Herndon.

Although she wouldn’t speak for school board members, the superintendent said, “It makes sense to me” that in the future the board would address looking at a pay scale for employees.

However, ED-8 trustee Walter Potts said Tuesday a pay scale exists for the school system but is not necessarily in use.

“None of this is necessary. If it was going to be done, it should have been done in January. It still wouldn’t have made it right,” added Potts who opposed the motion last week for Camp and Marshall to discuss salary adjustments with individual employees.

Salary adjustments are being suggested for some employees who came into the school system with a number of years experience in the field they are now teaching.

Previously, employees were hired using a 1 to 1 ratio that offers one year of teaching credit for each year of work experience in the particular field to be instructed.

Former Deputy Superintendent Larry Clark, who retired in December 2011, recalled Tuesday the 1 to 1 ratio was first implemented in 1979 to allow administrators to employ teachers having no college degrees. 

According to Clark, the state permitted trade experience for degree with a minimum of five years of verified trade experience in a technical profession. 

In 1979 Halifax County first employed and opened its vocational department and offered for the first time trade and industrial classes such as brick laying, drafting and auto mechanics.

Clark said the decision was made by the administration at the time, and he was not privy to those conversations as he was serving as an assistant principal at the high school in 1979.

He offered the following example:

“If a carpenter had worked 10 years, he was paid for 10 years of experience,” explained Clark.

He reiterated he is unaware of current ongoing discussions and has no knowledge of the current board’s actions.

However, he said before his retirement in 2011, he is aware discussions and concerns were expressed by various board members about crediting trade employees who didn’t have college degrees. 

“It’s a complicated issue. It’s a very subjective situation,” said Clark.

ED-5 trustee Roger Long referred to the 3 to 1 ratio now being used to make proposed salary adjustments describing it as a “normal practice around the state.”

According to Long, the board directed Herndon to explore the issues of inconsistencies, and he is “not sure what the board will do, but I take it very seriously and I care.” 

Long said Tuesday morning the salary adjustments are not being proposed as a cost saving issue but are more of a “legal and moral” right for the school system.

“The employees are the most important thing we’ve got. It’s a tough situation, we’ve got some tough decisions,” said Long.

Telephone attempts to reach remaining school board members for comment including ED-1 trustee Phyllis Smith, ED-2 trustee Karen Hopkins, ED-3 Chairman Kim Farson, ED-4 trustee Cheryl Terry, ED-6 trustee Fay Satterfield and ED-7 R. K. “Dick” Stoneman were unsuccessful Tuesday with calls not being returned as of press time Tuesday. 

Superintendents in two adjoining counties said they utilize pay scales when hiring and promoting employees within their school systems.

Pittsylvania County School Superintendent James McDaniel said when determining pay for that school system’s employees, board members typically practice a 1 to 1 ratio awarding one year teaching experience for one year of work experience in the field of instruction.

“Yes, we pay for previous experience,” McDaniel said of vocational positions.

Campbell County School Superintendent Robert Johnson said like Halifax, their school employees haven’t had a pay raise in five years, but instead of changing the pay scale, they extended it. Campbell County schools also practice the use of a pay scale on a 1 to 1 ratio.

“We pay for relevant experience…We have a practice in place,” said Johnson.

Calls to Charlotte and Mecklenburg County Public Schools were not returned by press time.

The Virginia Department of Education Director of Communications Charles Pyle said the decision whether to use ratios for pay scales is left up to the local school boards and are “local decisions” with the state department only providing data.

“We provide the average teacher salaries for the local school division and what their neighboring counties are paying. We don’t recommend salaries,” said Pyle.

When asked how the state department felt about Halifax County School administrators cutting the salaries of selected employees who were hired due to their years of experience in a particular field, Pyle declined to comment.

Marshall and Camp are expected to continue meeting with affected county school employees through the end of this week and have been instructed to bring their recommendations to the school board during its meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday at the Mary Bethune office complex in Halifax.