BY SARAH R. GREGORY
The Greeneville City School System, like other districts in the state, faces new requirements regarding teacher pay -- but unlike some other school systems, has found a way to avoid competition-based merit pay systems to satisfy the new mandates.
Director of Schools Dr. Linda Stroud explained during a Sunday-evening retreat of the Board of Education that the school system could keep its current pay scale and meet requirements by offering teachers additional pay for taking on additional duties.
In July 2012, the state's Board of Education approved a salary schedule for the 2012-13 year, but expressed concern and urged continued exploration of the issue.
In February 2013, the Tennessee Department of Education presented its research findings, then asked the state Board of Education for a revised salary schedule.
In April 2013, the state board unanimously approved the proposed 2013-14 state salary schedule, and revised differentiated pay guidelines for the 2014-15 school year.
"Our State Board of Education has been very active in the past couple of years with new policies," Stroud said, noting that the issue of pay is "just one of them."
The Greeneville City School System -- like other districts -- will have to have a pay plan that meets the requirements approved by the Board of Education. Then, it must submit that plan for approval by the state.
The Greeneville City Schools hopes to have a plan ready for submission to the state in January for preparation for the 2014-15 budget, Stroud said.
Some principles of the differentiated pay plan approved by the state include the ability to reward teachers who educate in high-need schools or high-need subject areas.
Additional compensation may also be given to teachers who take on additional instructional responsibilities -- such as serving as teacher mentors or instructional coaches.
Districts may also reward teachers for performance, based on state board-approved evaluation criteria.
They may also choose to adopt alternative salary schedules in order to meet requirements of the new differentiated pay policy, but across-the-board pay increases based on training and experience do not meet requirements of differentiated pay, Stroud noted.
DOES NOT CUT SALARIES
The new schedule does not cut teacher salaries, Stroud said.
"No presently-employed teacher will earn less than they're currently making. That is one of the provisions, and that's a good thing," she told Board of Education members.
"There is a new state minimum base" for teacher pay as well, Stroud said.
Allocation of funds for teacher compensation was increased.
During the past three years, Gov. Bill Haslam and the Tennessee General Assembly have infused more than $130 million in new, recurring funds for teacher compensation.
"But the overall state budget for education is being cut by $38 million, so the cuts will come out of different areas," Stroud said.
Additionally, the state's new salary scale does not provide any additional new funding for teachers with advanced qualifications above a master's degree.
The state says school districts will have flexibility to develop and implement pay plans to meet their specific priorities and needs, Stroud said.
"After first reading of this new policy, there were several folks that contacted our state board reps, and the language about allowing pay for additional duties was added in the final reading [of the policy]. But it was not in the original state board policy," she said, adding, "that is a good thing. We will look closely at that."
AVOIDING MERIT PAY
The Greeneville City Schools hopes to take advantage of that flexibility by using the system's current salary scale, and adding in the additional-pay-for-additional responsibilities model -- avoiding merit pay all-together.
Under the new differentiated pay policies approved by the state, districts may choose to compensate teachers based on performance -- essentially, paying teachers based on students' standardized assessment results.
The local school system, Stroud said, "does not want to go down this road of merit pay," believing it to be damaging to a culture of collaboration, by potentially creating competition among teachers.
Under a performance-based model, Stroud said, "you would just about have to re-do your pay scale, because you're going to have to take money away from somebody in order to increase money for someone else."
'DO NO HARM'
A system-wide committee of Greeneville City Schools employees has been studying the issue in an effort to come up with a recommendation about the best way the system can satisfy the new requirements.
Stroud said she opened membership of the committee to every employee in the system, should they want to participate.
"They were all invited to come to our system-wide meeting to discuss this, and we had a good turnout that day," she said, with teachers and other staffers learning about the requirements and providing input.
"They came out right where I really thought they would," she said. "It is not the wish of the teachers in Greeneville City Schools -- nor the administrators -- to go to a performance-based model. At all," she said.
"We believe that our culture in Greeneville City is one of collaboration, and that's what makes a difference for kids. Our teachers work together," she said.
"We don't want to do anything to harm that culture, and end up [having someone saying] 'this is really working for me, but I have a pay-raise dependent upon this, so I'm not going to share or mentor with another young teacher,'" Stroud said, as an example.
"That's not how we work. So, first, do no harm," she said.
But, as Stroud also pointed out, merit pay would be difficult to make work in the city school system, because it has no "level one" teachers.
More than 90 percent of teachers in the Greeneville City School System are level four or five -- the highest levels -- on the state's scale of teacher effectiveness as measured by a value-added system.
"Financially, you can't take away enough money from your lower performers in order to provide additional pay for your high performers," Stroud said.
The system-wide committee, administrators, and the central office team, Stroud said, ended up with a recommendation to look at the qualifier for additional pay for additional duties.
"Truthfully, we're already meeting that," Stroud said. "We have instructional coaches and team leaders, and we're adding our STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] leadership positions this year."
KEEP CURRENT PAY SCALE
With those additional roles already in place, Stroud said, "our recommendation is to keep our current pay scale -- we cannot pay any of our current employees less than this anwyay -- and then to meet the additional requirements of the new [state] board policy with additional duties for additional pay stipulation."
"So they are going to allow you to keep your current system?" board member Jerry Anderson asked, to which Stroud responded, yes.
"The governor has said that he intends to add another one-and-a-half percent pay raise at least this next year, so our plan would be to keep our current pay scale with steps and another percent increase and meet the requirements of the state board policy through additional pay for additional duties."
Stroud said she plans to formally bring the issue to the Board of Education in December for consideration.
"My plan is to fill out the template, then present it for your approval -- for our local [school] board for approval," which would then be submitted to the state in January, Stroud said.
Asked by board member Cindy Luttrell about the financial impact, Stroud said there would be "no change to what we've already budgeted and what we're doing."
Stroud said the local school system has had some discussions with state leaders, and expects that the local plan would be approved by the state.
"Before we met with the system-wide committee, we met with the state people," she said. "They educated us... on what is and is not allowable."
"Fortunately it looks like a lot of negotiation has happened, and we've got some flexibility with this mandate," said board member Mark Patterson.
"Now we'll test it by submitting our plan to them [the state] and we'll see if they're serious about the flexibility part of it, and go from there. We can't solve the other systems' problems, but I think we've got a good plan for ours," he said.