Should pay raises be Fort Worth schools' top budget priority?

Posted Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Every worker loves a pay raise. It helps cover the bills and recognizes effort on the job.

But at a time when school districts are insisting they're hurting for state funds, are employee salary increases a sound foundation on which to build a budget?

The Fort Worth school board on Tuesday approved budget priorities for 2013-14 that start with giving all employees what amounts to a 3 percent raise. The other goals are to leave the maintenance and operations tax rate as is and keep $70 million in the district's fund balance.

They're all worth aiming for. But the question is, Should everything take a back seat to pay raises?

Hank Johnson, deputy superintendent for business, said in a telephone interview that he believes the district can absorb pay raises and that they're a priority because Fort Worth pay is falling behind that of other districts.

For 2012-13, employees are getting a one-time payment equal to 1 percent of base pay. At this point, the proposal for 2013-14 is to make that 1 percent a permanent raise and add 2 percent on top. The estimated cost is $9.7 million.

Johnson told board members Tuesday night that the district expects $581 million in revenue for next year and more than $608 million in expenditures. That would leave a gap of almost $27.4 million, which would be taken from the fund balance, reducing it to $72 million.

In essence, the pay raises would come from fund balance. That would be a gamble and only a short-term solution for improving competitiveness.

After 2013-14, the district would need more state money or local revenue to keep paying the higher salaries. There's a lot riding on the Legislature -- either on its own or as the result of ongoing litigation -- to improve funding.

Concern about Fort Worth teacher salaries isn't unfounded. But trustees must be careful not to increase pay at the expense of essential programs.

According to the United Educators Association, Hurst-Euless-Bedford and Kennedale have the highest salaries among area districts for young and experienced teachers, starting at more than $50,000 and going as high as $69,600. (ueatexas.com/pdf/salary12-13west.pdf)

Fort Worth's beginning salary for teachers with a bachelor's degree ($45,200) ranks 18th in the area. Pay for five years' experience ($48,481) is 11th; and 30 years' ($64,214) is fourth. The district's rankings are similar for teachers with master's degrees.

Trustees should make sure they have their spending priorities straight before taking a final vote on a budget June 25.

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