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Albemarle School Board still evaluating proposed changes to competitive market
20160914-ASUPES-ASKUL
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Credit: Sean Tubbs, Charlottesville Tomorrow
Assistant County Executive Lee Catlin addresses a joint meeting of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and School Board in 2016.
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Josh Mandell | Saturday, October 28, 2017 at 5:08 p.m.

Many teachers are urging the Albemarle County School Board to adopt a new competitive market for determining teacher compensation that would be made up of Virginia school districts considered to be of high quality.

But it’s still unclear exactly how the school division would implement this market strategy. And some members of the School Board have indicated a preference for making smaller adjustments to the adopted market.

Albemarle currently compares itself to a competitive market of 26 school divisions in Virginia. Some teachers have accused the county of keeping salaries low with a competitive market that includes many localities that are poorer than Albemarle.

School districts in these localities are often behind Albemarle in on-time graduation rates, Standards of Learning test scores and other accountability measures.

“Albemarle is such a high-achieving district, and many teachers felt that we weren’t comparing ourselves to where we should be,” said Lorna Gerome, director of human resources for the county.

In a survey of more than 700 Albemarle teachers last year, the school division found that only 6.5 percent felt they were compensated adequately for their work. Sixty-five percent of respondents reported working an additional job to supplement their income.

This spring, the School Board hired the Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. consulting firm to help the division complete a review of teacher compensation and the adopted competitive market.

Gallagher & Co. found that Albemarle’s teacher salaries continue to meet and exceed salary targets at all service-year levels when compared to the existing competitive market. However, a comparison with a smaller group of high-performing school districts revealed areas with room for improvement.

The consultant used performance evaluations from Niche, a Pittsburgh-based company that compiles information and reviews of K-12 schools, colleges and neighborhoods.

Niche started ranking K-12 schools and school districts in 2014. Along with data from the federal Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics, the rankings also factor in data provided by Niche users, including reviews, self-reported college admissions test scores and expressed interest in colleges.

“What Niche takes into consideration is so comprehensive,” Gerome said. “That comprehensive quality measure is very appealing.”

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When compared to the school districts ranked highest by Niche — and with salaries adjusted for the relative cost of labor in each locality — Albemarle’s teacher compensation lags behind this market for employees with 10 or more years of experience.
 
The county’s starting salary — currently $46,000 for new teachers with a bachelor’s degree — remained competitive in the new market.
 
Albemarle placed third in the 2018 Niche rankings. The other 10 highest-ranked districts are Arlington, Loudoun County, Falls Church City, Fairfax County, Charlottesville, West Point, York County, Henrico County and Salem City.
 
Albemarle human resources staffers have estimated that meeting the median of the performance-based market would require an additional $2.8 million for teacher salaries if the new methodology were implemented next year.

Kate Acuff, chairwoman of Albemarle’s School Board, said the board has received letters from about 100 teachers asking it to adopt the proposed performance-based competitive market, and adjust salaries to meet the median of that market.
 
However, some School Board members have raised concerns about the volatility of the Niche rankings. Charlottesville City Schools, currently ranked sixth, placed 17th in the rankings released in 2016.
 
“The current competitive market isn’t perfect, but we have had the same one for 15 years,” said Albemarle School Board member Stephen Koleszar. “Consistency is important.”
 
Jessica Hair, marketing outreach coordinator for Niche, said the company was not of aware of any school division using its rankings to identify its competitive market.
 
Hair said updates to Niche’s data and reviews can change a school district’s ranking from year to year. She said a school’s placement also might be affected by the addition of new districts to the rankings.
 
Acuff said Albemarle could use the Niche rankings as a reference point for adjustments to the adopted market, or for raising the division’s position within the market.
 
“We can address the issues that the consultant’s comparison identified ... without changing the market basket,” she said.
 
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Cheryl Knight, president of the Albemarle Education Association, said she recognizes that the Niche rankings’ instability could be problematic.
 
“I think teachers are happy that the School Board is at least looking at the possibility of a different market,” she said.
 
Knight added that the county’s human resources staff must conduct yearly market research when making cost of living adjustments for teacher salaries — so making frequent adjustments to the competitive market might not be that much of a stretch.
 
At its Oct. 14 meeting, the School Board appeared to support restructuring the county’s 31-tier salary scale for teachers to make annual raises more consistent and transparent.
 
If the new pay scale is approved, the division would need to spend an additional $1.5 million to make adjustments to teacher salaries. If this is combined with a planned 2 percent cost of living adjustment for all teachers, many employees at the middle of the pay scale would see their salaries for next year raised by 4 percent or more.
 
“I think if we do a 4 percent increase, that will put us well ahead of the market,” Koleszar said. “In a perfect world, we would like to pay our teachers even more, but our budget is pretty constrained.”
 
Koleszar said that perhaps the only way to raise teacher salaries dramatically would be to hire fewer teachers, and make the division’s average class size larger.
 
“The working conditions, and the accomplishments we are making in this division, are among the attractions of teaching in Albemarle County,” he said. “I don’t know if teachers would want to sacrifice class size for higher pay.”
 
“The bottom line [in employee compensation] is whether you can hire the people you want to hire,” Koleszar said. “Some school divisions are having a hard time filling teaching positions. We are not.”
 
Gerome said the School Board would receive more information on the new competitive market strategies at its next regular meeting on Nov. 9.
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