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Teacher pay raises dominate budget discussions

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By Tom Wilmoth

Teacher salaries have taken center stage of early budget discussions by the Bedford County School Board.

Last Friday board members took a look at several scenarios in which they could increase salaries in an effort to make the county's pay scale more competitive with surrounding districts. A study conducted by school staff shows that currently Bedford County pays about 5.3 percent less on average than the surrounding jurisdictions. The county ranks near the bottom of the pay scale in comparison with surrounding districts.

Teachers in Bedford County make on average from $784 less for a first-year teacher than those in surrounding jurisdictions up to as much as $3,802 less on average for a teacher with 25 years of experience.

After discussing several scenarios, board members stated they would like to offer a 5 percent raise to the county's 910 teachers this upcoming year. But whether that's possible is another matter, several noted.

"I think it's feasible to ask," Vice Chairman Debbie Hoback stated. "Five percent is reasonable considering where we are. Maybe it's going to stretch our pockets a little."

At issue is just how much funding the school system will have at its disposal. Dr. James Blevins, school superintendent, pointed out to board members that while surrounding school districts are seeing significant increases in state funding for schools, Bedford County isn't getting that because of the state funding formula.

In addition, the reality is that surrounding school systems are proposing 4 percent raises for their teachers this year, Blevins said. He said if the school system would commit to increases above that level over the next several years, Bedford County could close the gap.

That's just what the Bedford County Education Association has asked the school system to do. In a presentation late last year at a joint meeting of the school board and the board of supervisors, the BCEA asked the school board to fund 5 percent raises each of the next three years for teachers.

It is estimated that the school system would have to add more than $2 million to its current salary budget annually to reach the average pay scale of surrounding districts. That's in addition to annual increases. That question was raised by Chairman Gary Hostutler last week after he was asked it by a member of the board of supervisors what it would cost to make the school system's teacher salaries more competitive.

If the school system was to raise salaries for all school employees this year by 5 percent, the cost increase would be $4.1 million, including insurance cost increases.

"I think we can make a case for some of this," stated board member Mickey VanDerwerker.

Last week's budget work session also included talk of additional costs the school system will face next year. Those include an expected $240,000 increase in fuel costs next year as well as increases in insurance costs. The school system is proposing a reduction of as many as 24 positions to help reduce costs. Those cuts will likely include six elementary and middle school teaching positions. Six additional teaching position reductions for elementary and middle schools are also being considered. In addition, two elementary assistant principal positions are slated to be eliminated along with four special education aide positions.

A drop in enrollment of up to 125 students next year is leading the school system to consider making the reductions. The assistant principal positions would be eliminated from Bedford Elementary and Stewartsville Elementary. Bedford Elementary, Big Island Elementary, Forest Elementary, Moneta Elementary, Montvale Elementary and Stewartsville Elementary could each lose teaching positions along with Bedford Middle School and Staunton River Middle School. The positions would expect to be eliminated through turnover.

At an earlier budget work session several board members said they want to move cautiously in eliminating positions. Board member Joy Wright said it was important to establish a good foundation for students in those first years of school. "If you have a smaller class, you can certainly do more with them," she said.