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After ten years with Fairfax County Public Schools, teacher Kevin Hickerson says that because his pay has not kept up with the cost of living in an affluent county, he may need to move on.

“This is the first year in my 10 years that I came to the realization that I might need to change careers if I want to continue living in Fairfax County,” Hickerson said. “I always thought I could overcome it. But this was the first year the fiscal burdens have actually outweighed what it would be to be employed here...

“Arlington, Alexandria and Montgomery County are offering better salaries for my level of experience. I’ve thought about moving to those areas to be able to gain the financial ability to provide for my family.”

The Fairfax County School Board is currently considering a proposed $2.5 billion for the 2013-14 school year. Superintendent Jack D. Dale, who is recommending the budget, conceded at a recent press conference on the budget, that the $2.5 billion in school spending focused on accommodating growing enrollment, offering little in compensation for teachers.

Dale has proposed allocating $18.9 million to give employees, the bulk of who are teachers, a 1 percent market scale adjustment in compensation. During years with higher local revenues, Fairfax County Public Schools has been able to offer employees a 2 percent cost of living adjustment and a 2 percent step in pay increase. However, employee pay was frozen in fiscal 2010 and 2011. No step increases were issued in fiscal 2010, 2011 and 2013.

In the region, Fairfax County teacher starting salaries, averaging $45,161, fall in the middle of the pack, Dale said. However, for teachers with master’s degrees, who average salaries at $58,303, and the maximum salary of $96,039, Fairfax County compensation ranks in the lower half to bottom of the region’s 10 public school systems.

“I think we have a red flag that we need to pay attention to,” Dale said during the press conference, held Jan. 10.

Hickerson estimates that — if the 2013-14 school year budget is adopted — he will have lost close to $20,000 in earnings over the last five years and could lose as much as $300,000 during his career if changes to compensation are not made. While looking for employment outside of Fairfax County is now a real concern, Hickerson said his short-term plan may include getting a second job.

“If I get this [second] job, I will now tell children who ask for extra help after school that I have to go to my second job,” he said. “If a parent requests information about the performance of their student, I will not be able to respond to it until I return to work on Monday. I consider myself a hard worker who performs well for the students I teach.”

Fairfax Education Association President Michael Hairston warned School Board members Tuesday during a public hearing that teachers in the county are feeling disrespected, demoralized and fatigued by working and compensation conditions.

“If you respect the work that a person does, you compensate them fairly for that work. FCPS is losing ground in salaries compared to other localities in the metro area,” he said. “For a high performing system such as this in a county of relative wealth, this is unacceptable. Consider, to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Fairfax County the annual income needs to be over $60,000, well above the means of thousands of FCPS employees. In fact, it is above the rate of an employee with nine years of experience and a master’s degree.”

Dale said he hoped a line-item of $6.5 million for extended teacher time would help to reduce some of the workload teachers face.

However, the superintendent referred to this funding as making a limited debt in the compensation needed to aid teachers.

“It really only buys our teachers one extra day,” Dale said. “The U.S. is probably one of the worst in the world at providing teachers extra time.”

Hairston agreed, saying, “Based on our experience, that is one more day that someone will find to fill with meetings, training and additional work. We’ve been down that road.”

Workload is a concern for school custodians too.

“Keeping our schools clean and safe is the job of our hardworking custodial staff,” field custodian Angela Almond said. “When a school-based custodian is out sick, the school requests assistance from the field-custodian office. There are often more requests than the number of field custodians available. Some relief was in sight this year because of the budget increased the number of field custodians by 20 positions. The positions were not filled even though funds were allocated. Now, the upcoming budget has dropped 19 of these positions.”

Almond, who also spoke at the public hearing this week, called on School Board members to reinvest in custodian positions that were cut and to fill those posts. “To do this will cost you $1 million,” she said. “What it means to me and my colleagues is the ability to reach the high expectations set by FCPS. It is nearly impossible to meet those expectations with the current staffing.”

Fairfax County Federation of Teachers President Steven Greenburg said the school system has reached the point of funding crisis. School Board members should look to local education groups and employees to craft creative solutions to address compensation needs, such as offering buyouts for some long-time staff and issuing mid-year step increases rather than beginning them in the fall.

“We appreciate the constraints on the budget but we will remind you we are falling further and further down the salary compensation list when compared with other school systems within this region,” Greenburg said. “We’re losing our competitive edge, which will ultimately translate in losses of quality educators. That will have a negative impact on students and instruction.”

The School Board is scheduled to adopt an advertised budget on Feb. 7. The budget is then forwarded to the county Board of Supervisors for review. While the school system decides how money is spent, the Board of Supervisors is the funding authority for local spending. When an allocation is approved for schools, the School Board will then review its advertised budget and then vote to adopt its fiscal 2014 budget. The vote is scheduled for May 23.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com