The Mehlville Board of Education moved closer to offering merit pay for teachers last week with a unanimous vote to send an outline of a performance-pay plan to negotiations teams.
“This event was historic not only for the district, but also for the state of Missouri,” board President Mark Stoner said before the Feb. 20 vote, noting that the board’s vote was a “public vote of confidence” on merit pay and that performance pay could give district residents and parents a method to give feedback to teachers and improve morale among teachers themselves.
Board Vice President Lori Trakas also commented on the historic nature of the 7-0 vote for Mehlville.
“This is a big moment,” she said. “This is a big thing. A lot of work’s gone into it, and I’m very impressed.”
After the meeting, Stoner told the Call that he knows of no other Missouri district Mehlville’s size that has taken steps to add a merit-pay system. Mehlville is the 20th-largest district in the state.
“When you step back and look, the overwhelming majority of districts … have not strongly considered any kind of a performance-pay system and worked with their educators in order to do that,” he said.
A 2012 memorandum of understanding, or MOU, created a compensation review, or merit pay, committee that was required to submit a plan by March 1 of this year.
That committee, comprised of teachers, administrators and board members Stoner and Elaine Powers, unanimously recommended the framework for a plan Feb. 12.
The proposal places district goals above individual goals when paying teachers.
Before the vote, Trakas said she appreciated the positive signal that the unanimous recommendation from the merit-pay committee sent to the board.
“I think that really speaks volumes of the work that’s been done on both sides, and both sides wanting to come together … to make this district even more solid, to reward those teachers for their performance,” she said. “This is just to say in good faith, do we want to go forward? And I think that that act (of the committee’s vote) gave me great encouragement to the direction of this district.”
Board member Ron Fedorchak, who joined former board member Venki Palamand as the dissenting votes against the MOU in 2012 because they wanted a longer school year in exchange for the pay increases included in the MOU, said he was also swayed by the plan the committee developed.
“I concur with Lori. I had my doubts about it, but I do like the plan you guys presented,” Fedorchak said. “Not killing the community-type learning and still (being) in a reward plan, and that it was accepted 100 percent (by the committee).”
Superintendent Eric Knost said, “I like what Lori said. I think it would be great if the motion included that the effort was to reward teachers for their performance. I appreciate that you bring that to light. I think it’d be nice for the public to know that, for the community to know that, that the board wants to reward teachers …”
“Is your desire to do that to couch this in terms of being a bonus system for our employees?” board Secretary Rich Franz asked. “Is that the message you want the community to receive? You’re interested in creating a bonus system for the employees?”
A previous merit-pay plan supported by the committee stalled because of a legal opinion by the district’s attorney that it resembled a bonus system, which is illegal for public employees under Missouri law.
“I’m interested in paying our teachers what they deserve,” Knost said later in the exchange when Franz asked the question again.
“So they aren’t being paid what they deserve?” Franz asked.
“(Franz is) just attacking,” Powers said to Stoner. “You want to call order?”
“Mark, this is nothing to do with what I just said,” Knost said. “This is just picking a fight.”
“I think the board recommendation should be for the board, quite frankly,” Stoner said.
“I’m not sure what you mean by that, Mark,” Powers said.
“Well, I don’t think it’s the superintendent’s job to make recommendations on the motions, per se, in the middle of a motion, or suggest amendments to it,” Stoner replied.
“Our practice has typically been to include him in the discussions,” Powers said.
The motion Stoner originally offered said the board recommended a public vote of confidence in the merit-pay framework and would negotiate in good faith as a next step toward the plan.
Trakas offered an amendment that added “in an effort to acknowledge excellence in educational instruction” to the motion, a suggestion that passed 6-1, with Franz opposed. Franz then voted for the final plan, which included Trakas’s amendment.
The cost of the plan is yet to be determined, since the plan is a framework, rather than a final product. Fedorchak asked for ballpark figures of what merit pay might cost the district, citing previous numbers suggested by board members that estimate annual costs of $500,000 to $750,000.
Stoner replied that he viewed the decision as a vote of public confidence in the idea of a merit-pay plan only, not a vote on its financial implications, since those are not yet known.
Board member Larry Felton said a study done by the Gates Foundation found that “it would not be uncommon to see your budget go up 20 percent,” including administrative costs.
Stoner pointed out that costs could depend on the size of a district.
“That’s the Gates Foundation, that’s not the Mehlville School District,” Franz said. “It’s important that we point out that that’s Larry’s opinion based on what he’s read, and that is an estimate. That is not factual information.”
Stoner served on the merit-pay subcommittee with Powers, and said they estimated annual increases in pay from 1 percent to 3 percent — similar to typical annual increases under the current step system, which pays teachers based on longevity and education.
Chief Financial Officer Marshall Crutcher said a traditional one-step annual salary increase for teachers would equate to a 2.3-percent average annual raise and cost the district $925,000. Under an estimated 2.9-percent annual increase for merit pay, the annual increase would be $1.25 million instead.
“So we’re talking, roughly again, between $750,000 and $1.25 million,” Fedorchak said, adding that he would not support a plan that increased salaries by 20 percent per year.
Every aspect of the merit-pay plan is up for negotiation, including an annual cap on salary increases, Powers noted.
“It’s not only up for negotiation, it’s up to the board funding it — so we’re in complete control of the salaries,” Stoner said.