4.7 percent raise likely for teachers

Cutting position eyed as way to free up funds to finance pay increase

In what they called a fair compromise, teachers got a tentative agreement from the Grand Canyon School Board for a 4.7 percent raise and a bonus of $475 incorporated into salaries.

The raise would be contingent on elimination of a staff position. Under the agreement, classified staff would get the 4.7 percent increase only.

In a school board work session last Thursday, teachers, administrators and board members came to the agreement after about an hour of discussion about the need and funding sources for a pay raise.

According to Superintendent Sheila Breen, because of a 3 percent increase in property values that will increase tax revenues, next year's budget would support a 3.2 percent increase without the need to raise additional funds.

Teacher Dan Lopez, who has been leading work sessions with teachers, said that amount would not be adequate to cover cost of living increases and a 1.7 percent increase in the share that teachers must pay into retirement.

"If you do that, you're going to be taking a portion of 33 teachers who are going to be making less than they're making this year," he said. "Then you're taking another portion of those teachers, who will be making about the same. And then you're going to be taking a small portion who will see a $20 per paycheck raise. It's going to be devastating to morale."

The Grand Canyon Professional Educators had come up with proposals for a straight raise of 5 or 6 percent, or a 3.2 percent increase and a one-time 1.7 percent cost of living bonus. Previously, they were seeking a 3.2 percent raise plus a step increase.

"After our discussions and after going to the teacher work meetings where we found out a little bit more information, it seems like the whole step thing is moving toward being obsolete anyway," said teacher Lori Rommel

Though teachers were initially opposed to elimination of a position to fund a larger raise, discussion with the board indicated that there were few other options, especially with a projected increase of about $20,000 in fuel costs next year.

"There are two ways to raise the money ­ either raise taxes or reduce a position," said Board member Chuck Wahler.

He said eliminating a position would free up at least $30,000. For each 10 cent increase in taxes, the district would realize $15,000 in revenue.

Board member Bess Foster noted that Tusayan's taxpayers, already shouldering large tax bills because of the limited property base, could still be required to pay a share of a $2.5 million tax refund to Xanterra.

"With a tax increase, if that were to happen, we also have this big monster looming of the money we may have to pay back because of the Xanterra lawsuit," she said. "That's a whole lot of money."

Wahler noted that the biggest obstacle to boosting salaries has been declining enrollment that has translated to a reduction of about $160,000 in funding.

"Given our decrease of students in the last several years, it's a legitimate thing to look at before we go looking at any increase in taxes," he said. "Enrollment has gone down 15 percent over the past several years but we've still retained the same staff size."

"If what it's going to take is to figure out what position not to fill in order to give x-percentage of a raise, we can sit down and do that," Breen said.

While cutting a position would fund the 4.7 percent raise, the bonus comes from Teacher Experience Index funds, money given to the district to offset the cost of employing experienced teachers at the high end of the pay scale.

There was some debate on how those funds should be distributed. Though the money doesn't have to go directly to teachers, the district has traditionally passed all of it on in lump sum payments in December.

"It's money that we get and we can distribute it any way we want," Wahler said. "What we have done with the exception of one year is that we have distributed it across the board as a one-time payment so that people view it as a bonus."

Lopez said that teachers had come to view the payout as a holiday bonus and that a decision to incorporate the money into salaries one year was an unpopular one because it translated to about $5 more per pay period.

The school received $18,000 in those funds this year, but with the departure of some of those long-time teachers over the next few years, School Business Manager Lee Metheny said that amount will drop to about $15,000 next year and possibly less than that as time goes on.

For that reason, Breen recommended folding the lump sum payment into salaries.

"One of the advantages of putting that in the salary compensation package is that it can give more of an increase this year, and it can't go down," she said. "So the advantage to the teachers is that as people retire and leave, and we get less of the TEI money, we can't cut their salaries by that amount."

Lopez expressed gratitude that the process has been professional and polite.

"I really appreciate the dialog," he said. "The first couple of years I was here, this issue was very contentious, and we had teachers literally almost directing the board to cut here or cut there."

Breen noted that the negotiation process looked a lot like those undertaken at districts that have eliminated the salary schedule, a move that Grand Canyon is exploring.

"This is the kind of negotiating those districts (without a salary schedule) are doing," she said. "I only throw this out so you get some idea of what this looks like. When it was first put out as an idea, people got pretty concerned about what does this mean. This is the kind of stuff that happens in districts that have eliminated salary schedules."

The board will vote on raises when they adopt the budget at their May meeting. That will be Tuesday, May 9, at 6:30 p.m. in the school library.

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