­­Staff, schools to get more money

Douglas board cites healthier economy

The Douglas County School District decision to extend school vouchers to some students is facing challenges from four national and local organizations. Photo by Courtney Kuhlen | ckuhlen@ccnewspapers.com
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Citing an influx of property tax revenue, the Douglas County School Board is giving more money to its schools and staff. The board passed a resolution Sept. 3 that makes an additional $3 million available for staff salary increases and $1.5 million for students’ education.

The raises will average 1 percent, and are “differentiated for performance,” which means amounts will vary based on a teacher’s evaluation rating and the market-based pay scale.

The money is on top of an average 2 percent teacher raise and an additional 2 percent in one-time bonuses already announced by the district in May. At that time, DCSD also committed to additional funding of $200 per student. The newly approved monies will add another $20 to $25 per student to that amount.

The added compensation means the most highly rated teachers may get a pay bump of as much as 9.5 percent, with all but 1 percent of that money a permanent salary increase.

DCSD also plans to boost pay for teachers whose salaries are below the market-based pay scale.

The decision to allocate additional funds is tied to an effort to make up for several years of salary freezes for teachers, and cuts to school budgets.

“The good news is because of several factors,” DCSD board vice president Kevin Larsen said. “One is, the county’s growing again. Property values are slightly up. Delinquencies are down. Receipts are up, and up in a sustainable way.”

While the district hails the additional money as good news, some call it bad budgeting.

“I do think the timing of this board announcement was unfortunate,” said Julie Keim, a school board candidate and certified professional accountant who has studied DCSD’s budget. “Schools need to know their budgets before the beginning of the year to truly maximize opportunities for students.

“Also, it is interesting that the candidates for the school board election were just finalized the day that this was announced.”

Four seats on the seven-member board are up for grabs in November.

Judi Reynolds, Keim’s opponent, said the release of additional funds indicates a prudent approach to fiscal management.

“I think the way the board and district have chosen to do things over the last few years is they do not want to commit money they do not know they have,” she said. “I am largely supportive of that. I agree it would be far better if we knew exactly what we had to spend on our kids and our teachers prior to the school year starting. (But) I don’t want to see us committing ourselves to spend money we don’t have.”

The Douglas County School District made a similar announcement in September 2012, again citing higher-than-anticipated property tax revenue that allowed it to distribute an additional $125 per student to all its schools.

Under the current board’s financial philosophy, Larsen said that may happen in future years as well.

“We’re going to budget on the somewhat conservative side; I’m not apologizing for that,” he said. “And when we close the books at the end of June, if there’s ever a surprise, it’ll be a pleasant one.”

While the additional $20 to $25 per student is helpful, Larsen noted it isn’t enough to have made a significant difference in schools’ original fall budgets.

DCSD critics also fault a fund balance they believe is unnecessarily high.  Credit-rating agency Fitch listed the district’s unrestricted fund balance at $86.7 million in February 2013. Its unassigned fund balance, money not already tagged for other uses, is about $17 million, consistent with the board’s 4-percent reserve policy.

The pay increases will begin showing up on teachers’ paychecks in October, and will be retroactive to July 1.

They will be weighed against each teacher’s placement on DCSD’s new evaluation system, which categorizes an educator’s teaching style on a range from “highly effective” to “ineffective.” DCSD also considers where a teacher’s salary falls on the market-based pay scale, which determines salary based on the difficulty of finding teachers for specific positions.

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