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Dustup over salaries frays nerves / December 26, 2019

A dustup over spending for teacher salaries and pay raises pay brought into focus the nebulous state of the school budget and a communications gap between members of the Mecklenburg County School Board Central Office and trustees.

Trustees say they felt blindsided by spending decisions and their impact on the overall budget, and worry that a lack of communication between those in charge of hiring and salary recommendations and the finance office will cause the school division to overspend its budget for fiscal year 2020.

“When you see me resign, you’ll know we’re in trouble,” Finance Chair Glenn Edwards told school officials at the monthly meeting this week, adding that he was not about to take the blame for a problem they caused.

Finance Director Christy Peffer tried to reassure trustees that the budget was not overspent, though she did admit that based on current spending and if no new money flowed into the school coffers, Mecklenburg County Public Schools would end the fiscal year around $20,000 in the black in the instructional line item category.

She said she anticipates larger reserves in the technology and administration line items, and is expecting to receive an additional $250,000 to $500,000 from state government when it makes its final transfer of money to the school division in March.

School Board Vice Chair Gavin Honeycutt said a letter that trustees received from Superintendent Paul Nichols regarding current spending vis-à-vis the budget prompted his concern that the school will overspend its budget by nearly $400,000 by the end of the fiscal year.

Nichols said he’d sent a letter to School Board members suggesting a hiring moratorium until the division receives its final allocation of money from the state, to guard against overspending in the instructional line item.

The problem appears to have started in May when the school division learned of the budget that the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors approved for the division for FY2020, which started July 1. Personnel Director Nan Alga then sent all 690-plus school employees a letter notifying them of their salary adjustment and asking them to contact her if they felt the amount was in error.

Before submitting their budget request, Alga had worked up a spreadsheet estimating the total cost to the division for salary adjustments, which include raises and corrections to the step at which some employees were paid. She said she added an additional 10 percent to the total in case there were errors in her calculations.

Just over 60 employees reached out to Alga suggesting they were still receiving an incorrect salary. She reviewed each case, corrected some, and determined that others were in fact now being paid at the correct salary. Of those she rejected, 16 appealed her decision to the assistant superintendent Abe Jeffers and he approved each request. As a result, several employees received a salary bump of seven or more steps, increasing their earnings by $10,000 or more per year.

Jeffers acknowledged during questioning from trustees that he did not discuss the impact of his decisions with the finance office. He also did not answer Dora Garner when she asked how he determined the appropriate step levels for these employees.

Garner wondered why clerical, transportation and administrative employees who have been working for the school division for six or more years could now complain about the rate of pay they received when they were first hired into the school division. These employees claimed they did not receive appropriate credit for work skills developed before taking a job with Mecklenburg County Public Schools and therefore were underpaid during their years working in the school system.

Honeycutt said the salary adjustments that were made after the school’s FY2020 budget was approved were not authorized by the School Board.

“It is my belief and Mrs. [Nan] Alga [Director of Personnel] can correct me if I’m wrong, that every step was looked at prior to giving the increases according to their years of service in Mecklenburg County Public Schools. It is my belief that we are in the situation that we are in is because we had people come back and question where they were in the steps,” said Honeycutt.

“It is my belief that Mrs. Alga had people come to her and she did not approve those changes and so the people then went to [assistant superintendent] Abe Jeffers who approved their increases. I have a problem with that. This is some of the reason we are in the predicament that we are in as far as our budget is concerned.”

Edwards added his understanding that most employees were to receive upward salary adjustments of only one or two steps. Nichols said trustees and supervisors approved scale adjustments for the employees and that’s why he’d asked county supervisors to approve over $1 million in the budget, instead of $200,000 or so that the division would have needed to pay for simple step increases.

Another reason the school division faces a potential budget shortfall, according to Honeycutt and Edwards, is because teachers are being hired into the school division at a much higher salary than was paid to teachers being replaced. They said these salary differences were never part of the budget projections calculated by Peffer when she prepared the FY 2020 budget for the school division.

Honeycutt and Edwards worried that the blame for overspending the budget would be put back on the School Board. “We’re going on your recommendations, but we were blindsided,” Honeycutt said as Edwards nodded in agreement.

When called before the finance committee Peffer said there is no overspending. She explained that based on her projections the division will end the current fiscal year on June 30, with an additional $20,000 in the instructional line item and the overall school division budget will end in the black as well.

“I projected [the numbers] out through the end of the [fiscal] year,” Peffer told Honeycutt, Edwards and Garner, each a member of the finance committee.

She acknowledged that the $20,000 cushion was not a lot of money and if the board hired additional teaching personnel it will cut into that reserve. She also said she expects to receive an additional $250,000 to $500,000 from the State of Virginia in March when the Department of Education makes its final payment to the division based on average daily membership figures for school enrollment.

The Department of Education underestimated the number of students enrolled in Mecklenburg County schools this year, she explained. The money transferred to the school division from the state, so far, this fiscal year, is based on state estimates. The payment that will come to the school division at the end of March is based on actual enrollment numbers, not state estimates. These monies are not included in the projections currently calculated by Peffer, she explained.

Jeffers then corrected what he said was a misstatement by Honeycutt, telling him that the School Board approved all salary adjustments for school personnel when they approved the FY2020 budget from the supervisors which included both pay raises and salary scale adjustments. This took place before any additional money was paid to existing teachers and staff and was part of a good faith effort to correct salary discrepancies.

Despite the budgetary concerns raised by members of the finance committee, later during the regular meeting of the School Board, trustees voted 5-2, with one abstention, to hire four new teachers and pay stipends to at least two other teachers. Only Garner and Edwards voted against the personnel recommendations.

Brent Richey abstained because his wife, teacher Kimberly Richey, was recommended to receive additional pay as she would be teaching an extra class. Honeycutt, Wanda Bailey, Dale Sturdifen, Lindell Palmer and Kenny Johnson approved the hiring requests.

In other business, Nichols announced Megan Hendrick as the new CTE Director for Mecklenburg County Public Schools. She replaces Gary Cifers who left the division earlier this year for a position as an assistant county administrator in Greensville County, which is his home county. Hendrick previously served the school division as the head of testing.

Trustees agreed to hold their reorganization meeting for the incoming School Board on Monday, Jan. 6 at 6 p.m. They will elect a new board chair and vice chair at that meeting.

Trustees also approved the school calendar for the 2020/2021 school year. The first day of school will be Aug. 10. Holiday or days off included Sept. 4 – 7 for Labor Day, early release Sept. 16, Columbus Day on Oct. 12, Election Day on Nov. 3, and Nov. 25-29 for Thanksgiving. The first semester ends Dec. 18 and the second semester begins Jan. 6, 2021. Holidays during the second semester include Martin Luther King Day Jan. 18, President’s Day Feb. 15, March 12 and 17, April 2-11 for Spring Break. The last day of school will be May 26.

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