By Alexandra Cline

The Rockbridge County School Board is asking the board of supervisors for a 5 percent raise in teacher salaries for next year as part of an effort to alleviate lagging teacher pay and retain quality educators.

Last year, the teachers received a 1.5 percent average salary increase after the educators told the supervisors they were facing a crisis because of low salaries. The teachers wanted more than that.

This year, their arguments are supported by a study by the Rockbridge County school division that compares its salaries and wealth to 19 other adjacent systems. The study revealed that Rockbridge County teacher pay is below average in most categories. According to the same study, the county is ranked fourth highest in wealth, a measure of its ability to pay.

“We’re supposed to be better than what we are,” said Phillip Thompson, Rockbridge County school superintendent. “Rockbridge County has continued to lag further and further behind every year.”

At a joint meeting last month with the board of supervisors, the school board said it is looking to bring Rockbridge County’s teacher pay to the middle of those comparable systems. To accomplish that, the county would have to raise teacher pay by an average of 3 percent.

Even then, Thompson said, all of the other school divisions will continue to pull away from Rockbridge County because they will likely give a 2 percent raise for next year on top of the current salaries. To compensate for that, the school board is asking for an additional 2 percent, bringing the total increase to 5 percent, or just under $1 million total.

The five elected supervisors, not the elected school board members, hold the power to raise local money for schools. The supervisors care about education, but they are also sensitive to the need to keep taxes from continuing to rise, said Ronnie Campbell, the South River supervisor.

“We’re trying to look out for the citizens as well as the children,” he said.

For now, he said, the current teacher starting pay is adequate for meeting the county’s standard of living.

“I think somebody can live off of $38,000,” he said.

Patrick Bradley, a Latin teacher at Rockbridge County High School, said the supervisors need a greater commitment to education if teachers are going to get adequate pay.

“The board of supervisors doesn’t see education as enough of a priority,” Bradley said. “They like to be seen as fiscally responsible and don’t like to be seen as big spenders who will raise people’s taxes.”

Rockbridge County teacher pay falls near the bottom of the scale for teachers with five years of experience. (Source: Rockbridge County Schools, superintendent’s office)

Rockbridge teacher salaries, by the numbers 

A typical teacher salary scale includes a series of steps based on years of experience, with teachers usually advancing one step each year. A cost-of-living adjustment would then be applied to all the salaries for each step as an additional increase.

But Chris McGrath, a Rockbridge County High School math teacher, said the county ’s scale hasn’t functioned that way for about the past eight years.

Definitions vary somewhat among the ways Thompson, McGrath and Bradley define “step,” “cost of living” and a “raise.” The step for experience has been counted as some of the cost-of-living amount. The effect, McGarth said, is that teacher salaries barely keep pace with the inflation, if that.

“In terms of what it’s worth, you’re effectively making the same amount,” he said. “I’m not ever actually making, in real terms, any more money.”

McGrath said new teachers are especially harmed.

“If I’m in my 30th year as a teacher, and I’m at the $80,000 mark – which is really equal to the $40,000 I made when I started – then what a new teacher is actually starting at is much less than that,” he said. “If you project that over time, it’s devastating. It’s to the point now that I hesitate to recommend to any one of my students that it’s a good thing to go into public education.”

Bradley, the Latin teacher, said the teacher pay problem started soon after the recession, when budgets were shrinking and salaries were frozen. Though the economy has rebounded, Bradley said the county hasn’t returned to its pre-recession funding levels. He said it’s been a fight for teachers to receive even a step increase on the scale, which used to be the norm.

Last year, we got a so-called pay raise, but it was just a step on the pay scale,” he said. “The pay scale has lagged so far behind where it should be. It’s pretty grim where we fall.”

The average salary for Rockbridge County teachers from fiscal year 2016 was about $49,000, about $6,000 less than the state average, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

For new teachers in the county with only a bachelor’s degree, the current starting salary is about $39,000, which ranks 11th out of the 20 divisions studied. That figure is slightly higher than the starting salary in Lexington and is significantly higher than that in Buena Vista, which ranks last on the list.

But, in comparing salaries for teachers with five years of experience, Rockbridge County falls close to the bottom of the scale. For teachers with 30 years of experience, the salary gap stretches even more, with Rockbridge teachers making about $10,000 less than teachers in the highest paid locality on the list.

RCHS English teacher Laura Harrawood, who has 29 years of teaching experience and three degrees, said she’s struggled to stay afloat financially. Harrawood said she’s also seen both new and veteran teachers leave the area for better-paying school districts.

“There is no reason to go into teaching unless it is a calling, similar to the ministry,” she said. “The extrinsic rewards just are not there. You can make more money waiting tables or selling cell phones.”

The fiscal reality of county budgeting  

The county receives most of its school funding through the state and the locality. The board of supervisors will meet at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 21 to hear its Finance Committee’s presentation on budget requests, including the school board’s.

Supervisor Campbell said the budget for the next fiscal year should be finalized by April, followed by public hearings. About half of the county’s approximately $43 million budget is used to fund the school system.

Campbell said he can’t see a way for the county to correct its teacher pay shortfall in one year. Rockbridge isn’t as well-off financially as the salary comparison scale indicates, he said.

“That’s misleading,” he said. “Rockbridge is a good draw for people in the northeast who are retiring. They’re coming here with nice little retirement accounts. Rockbridge looks like a wealthy county period. It’s not.”

But Campbell said he’s committed to retaining quality teachers for the county and ensuring that pay scales are fair.

Last year, the Virginia General Assembly voted to raise teacher pay in the state to meet or exceed the national average. But even with state-funded pay raises, Campbell said the localities have often been forced to cover pay raises for some of their teaching staff, particularly those teachers not included in the state’s allocation such as P.E. and art teachers.

For McGrath, a solution needs to come from a long-term plan of the board of supervisors to achieve and maintain competitive salaries – even when state funding fluctuates.

“This 5 percent or so increase is going to bring us up to approximately the average of the areas around us,” he said. “But if they do that in one year and then next year say, ‘Oh they got a big raise last year’ and they go back to the same thing, then we’re back in the same situation.”

This story was revised to clarify that teachers wanted a larger raise last year and that teachers and administrators adhere to different definitions of key terms and areas of dispute in the teacher-pay issue.

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