IRSD fleshes out admin crew as finances improve

When the Indian River School District implemented a challenging budget for 2017-2018, district officials asked for one year to get back on their feet. Now, the clouds are parting and they’re loosening the purse strings.

In addition to giving schools more money, the IRSD is also researching administrator salaries, wondering if low pay (or lack of actual pay scales) has jeopardized their ability to attract the very best applicants.

“When we have positions open, we’re not getting applicants,” said Jan Steele, IRSD director of business.

Regardless of the reason, officials say the district needs a standard pay scale for administrators. They’re also researching whether some positions might warrant a more competitive salary rate, compared to other districts in Delaware.

“What we’re trying to work toward is a set salary rubric,” Steele said.

The discussion started with a 2016 financial audit. The Delaware Auditor of Accounts found disparities between administrator salaries, despite similar education, experience and evaluations.

Most salaries (such as teachers) are paid 70 percent by the State and 30 percent by local funds from county taxes. But the IRSD negotiates with administrators on an individual basis, so some receive higher salaries, which is augmented by local funds that districts can spend however they choose.

“While the District’s administrative employees (e.g. directors and supervisors) … were subject to the State’s salary schedule for the State-funded portion of their salaries, we found that the District does not have an administrative salary schedule for local funds,” AOA reported.

In the past, the IRSD tried to set some salary guidelines, although raises are also based on evaluations. Meanwhile, the State share is based on strict guidelines. IRSD could use the State’s guidelines or develop their own, considering school type, number of students and staff the administrator oversees, experience, education or other criteria.

“Right now, the salary matrix that we’re looking at … provides different salary levels for elementary, middle and high school,” Steele said.

“The goal is to look at the salaries and see if they’re basically even with the other districts, and if not, maybe the possibility of raising them. … That’s what we are researching,” said Board President Charles Bireley.

Nothing has been decided yet, he told the Coastal Point. There has been research, but no votes.

“Right now, we’re looking at it to see if there is something the board wants to do. No vote has been taken and, right now, we’re not really doing anything,” said Bireley, citing “personnel issues” as a reason for discussing many such issues in closed executive session.

Although an individual’s salary is considered personal, a district’s finances are not.

“Right now, there isn’t any time frame” to schedule a vote, he said.

The topic has never been discussed publically, except when the teachers’ union broached the topic and encouraged transparency during their monthly report to the board. The salary items are always listed on the public agenda, just in case. But Bireley always asks for a motion to table discussion until after the executive session.

“Most of the time, we don’t even discuss it, but it’s there in case there is need for discussion,” Bireley explained.

Instead, the topic has been discussed by a working group of four board members (which is less than a quorum for the entire 10-person board, so agendas and minutes have not been published). Members include Bireley, Board Members Rodney Layfield, Jim Hudson and Leolga Wright. They have also collected information from IRSD administrators who are researching salaries across the state.

They sometimes talk on their own before board meetings, he said, or the entire board raises the topic in executive session.

“If we get to the point where we bring it back to the board, that vote will be done in public,” said Bireley. The motion “would be to approve the recommendation from the committee.”

Teachers remind board about transparency

In last year’s budget crunch, IRSD’s boots-on-the-ground staff agreed to help the district by renegotiating their existing pay contracts. In 2017, the teachers and secretaries voted to spread their pay raise over the next few years. Instead of earning a 5 percent raise this past year, those staff agreed to 1 percent, then 2 percent, then 3 percent, through the 2020 fiscal year.

The new contract agreements affected approximately 840 teachers and 74 secretaries. (That only applies to the local share of salaries, about 5 percent of the 30 percent local share.)

The district “said this would save all these jobs,” said J.R. Emanuele, president of Indian River Education Association (IREA). “So the teachers, being the kindhearted people that they are — they voted overwhelmingly to spread out their raise over the next three years to save their coworkers’ jobs.”

Now, the IRSD is ahead of Jan Steele’s financial goals timetable, so the board will soon discuss a proposed budget plan that allows for more spending.

But the board hasn’t even discussed salaries in public, and the union wasn’t invited to participate in behind-the-scenes discussions. So Emanuele said he fears the perception that could arise. What will IRSD’s teaching staff think if a handful of administrators get pay raises with no explanation?

Transparency is key for many in the district, and the audit revealed low transparency in several areas. The IREA and some members of the public have become more demanding of board transparency.

Emanuele said he has appreciated some improvements, such as Mark Steele’s regular email updates to staff detailing changes, such as the hiring of additional administrators. In the past, staff would hear rumors or field parents’ questions, but they wouldn’t even know what board decisions were made because they were teaching in school all day while board members were doing news interviews, Emanuele said.

Administrators definitely deserve to be paid fairly and not overworked, Emanuele said, adding that he does not oppose raises. Everyone made sacrifices, and a handful of administrators picked up a lot of additional work last year, assuming duties left by unfilled positions.

“We think our administrators are great, and they should all make as much as they deserve to make. But we don’t want teachers to get the impression that we gave up our raise, and now they’re going to turn around and give it to administrators,” he said.

If the district is so far ahead, he said, he asks the board to consider making the teachers “whole” again.

“It’s the last thing they feel they need to accomplish from the audit, but it’s a tough-sell, because the teachers gave up their pay raise in order to save jobs — not in order to give administrators a pay raise,” Emanuele said. After all, “There’s never been a referendum that passed without teacher support.”

Vacancies still save money

The State share of salaries is based on student enrollment, or “unit count.” But the IRSD routinely leaves a few vacancies to save money, although other staff must pick up the resulting workload.

In 2017-2018, the IRSD employed 47 total administrators: one superintendent, four directors, six supervisors, 16 principals and 20 assistant principals. They saved $446,155 for local taxpayers and $793,164 for the State by leaving eight vacancies — two assistant superintendents, two directors, two supervisors and two assistant principals.

In 2018-2019, will have 51 total administrators: one superintendent, one assistant superintendent, five directors, six supervisors, 16 principals and 22 assistant principals. (They’re still short two supervisors, compared to 2016-2017.) They will save $287,328 in local funds and $509,522 in State funds with five vacancies — one assistant superintendent, one director and three supervisors.

That provides just a portion of IRSD’s $2 million “give back” money, which the State of Delaware has once again requested IRSD cut from its budget.

District strides toward savings goal

IRSD administrators have said they are glad to be rebuilding the district’s financial reserves to $8.7 million. That “savings account” is important for emergencies and for summertime. It pays salaries for several months, until the IRSD receives the bulk of its funding from state and local taxes.

This year, they put aside about $5.6 million, plus the $3.1 million from last year.

“As I’ve said before, these are funds we will use this summer,” Jan Steele told the school board in July. “They will actually pay payroll through October. But toward our $12 million goal, this is great to be at $8.7 [million] already.”

At the end of the fiscal year in June, the IRSD had taken in about 97 percent of its budgeted total revenue and spent about 95 percent of budgeted expenses.

By Laura Walter
Staff Reporter