Veteran teachers, school board members object to Fort Smith Public Schools’ pay plan

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 2,693 views 

It’s back to the drawing board for teacher salary increases at Fort Smith Public Schools. The administration presented a proposal to the school board April 18 that would have raised salaries for certified staff on average 5.53%. However, the school board asked for an option that might make things more attractive for veteran teachers.

The proposal presented would have added $5,500 to the base certified salary schedule (CSS) and level the current “step” increases from step two to step 21. It would have raised the certified base salary from $38,500 to $44,000 for the 2022-23 school year. At $38,500, the FSPS base salary is only 7% higher than the Arkansas state minimum for teacher pay, said Charles Warren, FSPS chief financial officer.

While the proposal would have done much to make beginning Fort Smith teacher salaries competitive with those in other schools in the Fort Smith region and closer to what is offered in Northwest Arkansas, many teachers felt it was unfair to veteran teachers.

“While there are some things we greatly appreciate about this proposal, there are some problems,” said Wendy Peer, a veteran teacher. “One person even said, ‘In any budget, follow the money, and you’ll see what is valued.’ Where is the commitment to our veteran teachers?”

Heather Aguilar, an 18-year veteran teacher, said the district should not put the most emphasis on being competitive in pay with other districts at the cost of its veteran teachers.

Following the existing salary schedule, FSPS is 49th out of the state’s 235 school districts in base salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no experience. FSPS is the fifth largest school district in the state. The proposed change would have brought that up to eighth in the state, according to Warren. He noted that his calculations could not look at what school districts throughout the state might do for the 2022-23 school year.

The proposal would have brought raises ranging from $610 to $6,300 or 0.86% to 16.04% with the average increase being $3,249.84, or 5.53%, according to the proposal. However, as Aguilar noted, starting teachers would get about a 12% raise, while veteran teachers were looking at closer to 1.13% raises.

“When we were meeting with the PPC (personnel policy committee) the major concerns were a more competitive salary schedule base and additional steps beyond step 21,” Warren said. “They wanted all  educators to make more in FY23 than in FY22, and they asked us to make sure everyone would at least make what they would have made if we left things as they were, meaning if the step they were going into would have a $1,000 pay increase, they needed to at least get that.”

The proposed changes would have ensured everyone would get a raise this year, even if in some instances that raise was slight. The reason for the slight increase for veteran teachers was that a very skewed salary schedule already had veteran teachers making more than most districts in the Fort Smith metropolitan area while beginning teachers were making much less.

“The current structure is skewed heavily to veteran teachers in the 13 to 21 step,” Warren said. “This is a market correction.”

The PPC voted 16 in favor of the change and 13 opposed to it at a meeting before the proposal was presented to the school board, Warren said.

While the board understood the need to increase the base pay in order to keep Fort Smith competitive with other districts within the area, it did want to see something that could be more rewarding to veteran teachers. Board member Dalton Person specifically asked that the district look at adding at least a step 22 to the salary schedule this year and to look at adding more in the future.

The FSPS salary schedule stops at step 21, meaning the only way those who reach step 21 receive a pay raise is if there is an increase to the base salary or they move into another “lane” on the salary schedule by adding more college hours or another degree. About half of the 1,109 certified FSPS employees are in the 16-21 steps, marking them as veteran teachers. Of those, 377 are on step 21.

FSPS Superintendent Dr. Terry Morawski said Warren and his staff are working to rework the proposed new salary schedule and it will probably be the middle of May before it can be taken back to the board.

“When I started looking at this, I saw it as a puzzle. I’m a numbers guy. I wasn’t thinking about the feelings involved, I was looking at how to use the money we could use and how it would best be done. Now, I understand. I will do the best I can,” Warren said.

The average pay raise for teachers in the proposal in percentage terms was well below recent raises provided to Morawski. When Morawski’s contract as superintendent for Fort Smith Public Schools was recently extended, his contracted salary was set at 14.47% higher than his salary approved Dec. 30, 2020. Certified staff pay has on average increased 1.11% during that same time.

Morawski has received two raises since his hire date, 5.6% with the start of this 2021-22 contract and 8.4% with his 2022-23 contract. In his contract, there was a stipulation that if he passed his performance review, his raise would be equal to Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers for the South as calculated by the U.S. Department of Labor for the 12-month period. This was the same stipulation as in the contract for Morawski’s predecessor, Dr. Brubaker.

In the past, that raise was most commonly around the 2% range, said Person.

“We did not know the economy was going to be as highly volatile as it is now,” he said.

In February 2022, the rate was 1.9%, Person said. In February 2022 because of inflation, the rate was at 8.4%. At the time of his review in March, Morawski insisted that the contract be so that the raise would be at a set amount rather than based on the consumer index because the index has been so volatile recently, Person said. The board agreed to that request and set the rate at 3%.

“So moving forward if his review shows he is performing adequately, that’s the raise the board will be looking at,” Person said.