February 12, 2013

City schools add to calendar, teacher pay

Hoping for additional restoration in fiscal year 2014

By Christopher Smith

— Dalton Public Schools officials took a “small, first step” toward rebuilding the school calendar Monday night after years of cuts to teacher salaries and work days.

School board members voted 4-0 to return two days to the school calendar this year, bringing the total to 182 days by adding one in-class day for students and one professional development day for teachers. Teachers will be paid for both. Chairman Danny Crutchfield did not attend the meeting.

City school officials decided to cut 10 days from the then 190-day calendar following the 2008 economic downturn that hurt state and federal funding to public schools across the nation.

“Salaries and calendar days were reduced mostly because the state Department of Education began to cut funding to the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula,” said Theresa Perry, city school financial officer. “Adding back these two days will bring up our teacher salaries a bit. It’ll cost about $400,000 more to cover.”

QBE is a funding formula used by state officials to estimate the cost of each student specific to each school system. Given the city school system’s 7,564 students (as of Oct. 2, 2012), the QBE formula said city schools needed $41.3 million in state funding for fiscal year 2013, which began July 1, 2012. The school system received $29.2 million. The rest of the system’s $56 million budget comes from $25 million in local property taxes and $290,000 in federal grants.

“We’re still having financial challenges, especially with these state reductions,” Superintendent Jim Hawkins said. “There’s no indication that says state funding will ever be restored. These austerity cuts are a reality we have to deal with ... it’s the new normal.”

The new normal doesn’t necessarily mean teachers have to get used to their smaller paychecks.

“We’ve been balancing the budget on the backs of our employees for awhile,” said board member Steve Williams, who — with the other school board members in attendance — asked finance department officials to look into the possibility of increasing teacher salaries for fiscal year 2014, which begins July 1 of this year.

“We will work with our compensation committee — which includes representatives from teachers, assistant principals, paraprofessionals, clerical staff, nutrition and so on — to see what we can do,” Perry said. “We’ve got about 14 different scenarios that vary from giving out the absolute minimum, all the way to restoring salaries to where they were a few years back. Right now, we’re brainstorming all possibilities and seeing what we can do with our budget.”

The majority of a teacher’s salary is mandated by the state, but there are “local supplements with local control” added on to the paycheck that offer room for pay growth, said Perry.

“We’ll take a look at some of these issues in March with the possibility of approval in April,” she said.

The first draft of the 2014 budget assumes an additional $1 million in QBE funding to pay for an increasing student body, no changes to the local tax digest, and no “curve balls” from state lawmakers who are working on the state budget in Atlanta. If there are no major budget changes on the state level, salary increases are possible, Perry said.

“We don’t see any additional major cuts from Atlanta,” Hawkins said. “But we don’t see any major restorations to bring us back to where we were in 2009.”