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Stuck in the mire / March 28, 2013
When stuck in quicksand, the worst thing one can do is struggle to break free, or so they say.

What “they” never explain, however, is how you’re supposed to otherwise escape your predicament. Wait for Indiana Jones to walk by, flick his whip and pull you out like a stuck pig?

“Quicksand” is a word that could be used to describe the morass of policy messes that Superintendent of Schools Merle Herndon inherited upon taking over at the Central Office. Aside from the generally unpleasant work of paring school operations to fit shrinking budgets, her task list included a review of priorities that cried out for a fresh set of eyes.

The School Board has been thrashing around this week in the mire of one such policy pitfall — past hiring and compensation practices that have given rise to employee pay disparities, real or perceived. In response to the problem — if not to drum up loose change for the budget — Herndon and her administrative team opted to tackle the challenge of fixing pay inequities head-on.

So, for the past couple of weeks, Central Office reps have been going around schools to meet with affected teachers, telling some that their salaries may be cut, others that their salaries may be raised. With that painful task more or less complete, School Board trustees met Monday night to decide what to do next.

Their directive to Herndon is probably every school superintendent’s worst nightmare:

“On second thought ….”

So much for the Salary Equalization for Make Benefit Glorious School Division, Herndon’s latest initiative. (Fans of the “Borat” movie may get the joke.) The School Board punted on the question of messing with individual salaries, although the matter is expected to come back up for discussion in April. Until then, as Dickens would say (and there’s a guy who knew something about how the little people got trampled on) aw’s a muddle.

Yuck. Unto itself, cutting salaries is an awful, terrible, no-good practice. If the school division were really this hard up for money, the Central Office would do better to impose staff cuts, even layoffs, rather than take the quickest route to guaranteeing itself a disgruntled workforce. (The dynamic was nicely captured by business columnist James Surowiecki, with The New Yorker, when he wrote back in March 2009 that “layoffs don’t exactly help morale, but, as one of the bosses … coldly put it, they ‘get the misery out the door.’ Cutting wages keeps the misery around.”) There is a qualifier that applies to the current situation, however, and it’s a biggie: For every employee whose pay might be reduced, another would be closer to achieving parity of compensation, even if the size of her paycheck were to remain the same.

Fairness is an innately appealing quality — one that can justify an otherwise unjustifiable decision to dock people’s wages. (If cutbacks for some are accompanied by raises for others, ‘tis all the better). But fairness is tricky business, one that requires great care to achieve. The School Board indicated this week that it will take a long, hard look at compensation levels within the system to develop a consistent plan for everyone — which is wonderful. If only such a step had been taken before individuals were called in to receive the regrettable news that they’re overpaid. Let’s just say “great care” is not the phrase that springs to mind here.

There are lots of things those of us on the outside looking in do not know about this paycheck predicament in front of the School Board. For starters, is the pay equity issue a major one? To bulk up the high school dual enrollment program, especially on the career and technical side, former superintendent Paul Stapleton brought in instructors with real-world experience and paid them comparatively generous salaries to reflect their years in the private sector. Stapleton also was big on encouraging master’s degrees — a policy aimed at bolstering dual enrollment’s academic bona fides. One result was the perception that some teachers fared better on the pay scale because they fit more neatly into Stapleton’s grand conception of what the schools should be doing.

How much did this workforce makeover by the former superintendent throw pay scales out of whack? You hear stories, some of which I know to be true, about how Stapleton hired instructors and paid them more than teachers with much more classroom experience. But was the practice widespread? Or hit-or-miss? And looking forward, is there much gold to find in them thar payroll hills? Who the heck knows?

The efficiency study conducted last year by Prismatic offers only limited insight on these questions. Prismatic surveyed teachers and found that “employees in all work groups expressed distrust and anxiety about the accuracy of their assignment to the salary schedule.” (See page 136). The problem was exacerbated, the report continued, by the fact employees hadn’t gotten a raise in four years. “Salary concerns were widespread in the division,” reported Prismatic, and based on peer comparisons with like-sized school divisions, “these perceptions appear to be accurate.” But what about specific payroll blips? Researchers combed through the payroll records of instructional personnel and found only one case where someone was wrongly pegged on the salary scale: “Once informed of this error, division staff moved to correct it immediately.”

One of Prismatic’s many recommendations was paying for a compensation study to sort out fact from fiction — a step the School Board and Herndon chose not to take before stirring the pot on salaries. This is the third time, by my count, that the School Board under Herndon has taken a disturbing direction on compensation issues. The first, of course, was the cancellation of the LORP program to encourage senior employees to take early retirement. There were many bad design features with LORP, but abruptly cancelling a promise to longtime, loyal employees shouldn’t be anyone’s idea of appropriate corrective action. The second flub was the public agonizing, by Herndon and others, that school employee health insurance was at risk because the prior administration hadn’t adequately budgeted for its expense. This turned out to be not true — although fears had been fanned before the facts were sorted out.

Now this. On payroll issues, the Prismatic study made the point succinctly: “The way in which a school division compensates employees can affect the divisions’ image and ability to attract top talent.” Widespread grumbling over distortions in pay matters insofar as it sends a signal that Halifax County Schools can’t be counted on to reward loyalty among the workforce, upon which our cash-deprived schools depend. So good for Herndon and Co. for addressing a holdover issue with a direct impact on the staff. But in attempting to rise above the mire, she and the School Board need to take more care not to sink further into it.

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