Merit-pay panel spends ample time on issue; no consensus reached

Bonus system off the table

By Gloria Lloyd

Members of a Mehlville School District committee agreed they have spent ample time researching potential routes for merit pay in the district, but they came to no clear consensus on where to go from there.

“We’re looking at corporate philosophies for a socialist institution, is really what we’re doing,” said Oakville Middle School English teacher Derek Norton, who serves on the compensation review, or merit-pay, committee.

“And the one thing that I think gets lost sometimes — right now, if someone were to look up a teacher’s salary in the Mehlville School District, it can be justified by this is how many years (they have taught), this is their education, and it’s transparent, and you know that’s what’s going on,” he added. “And that’s one thing that I think is the big difference. Those private companies don’t make their salaries public.”

A memorandum of understanding, or MOU, negotiated in spring 2012 by a discussion team of board members, teachers and administrators mandates that teachers receive a 5-percent pay increase over two years, in exchange for establishing a merit-pay committee to look at the issue.

The Mehlville National Education Association, or MNEA, ratified the agreement in May of last year, with 93-percent approval.

Last spring, committee members said they liked the idea of a “multiplier,” extra money based on performance on top of the current teacher salary schedule, proposed by school board President Mark Stoner, who serves on the panel with board member Elaine Powers.

That sounded too much like a bonus to district attorney Charles Elbert of the Kohn, Shands, Elbert, Gianoulakis & Giljum LLP firm, who cautioned administrators that public-employee bonuses are unconstitutional in Missouri.

In his legal review, Elbert wrote that even if the district pays a teacher in one year based on his or her performance the previous year, it would likely be interpreted as a bonus and challenged in court. Teachers who received less money might challenge a policy based on performance rather than longevity or education because they could allege that principals evaluated teachers differently or discriminated on the basis of race, gender, disability or religion, he added.

Merit pay could lead to perceptions of favoritism and decreased collaboration and morale among teachers, in addition to extended collective bargaining with the MNEA and increased time spent on administration and legal review to oversee the program, Elbert noted.

“The theory behind merit pay is to increase student performance, which in turn should improve student achievement, yet there’s minimal evidence to support this,” Human Resources Director Mark Catalana read from a memo outlining Elbert’s legal opinion.

Although Elbert implied that it is unconstitutional for public employees to be paid for performance, Stoner said that other government agencies in Missouri successfully use performance pay, on the behavioral psychology theory that people given a financial incentive to do a better job will do so. Those agencies and employees have not encountered the problems Elbert cautioned would occur, he added.

“From what I’ve heard so far, it’s clearly a person who’s not very versed in performance pay,” Stoner said.

Administrators went to Elbert with no specific program, however, but asked him what he thought of the idea of a salary band, Assistant Superintendent Lisa Counts said. She believes teachers have different motivations than other workers.

“I think teachers are motivated differently, I really do. But I don’t have any research to back that up,” she said. “All I have is my experience only as an educator, I’ve never worked anywhere else.”

Teacher Laurie Brickey, a music specialist and a past MNEA president, agreed that teachers are set apart in their motivation from the rest of the work force.

“I don’t know how many other teachers here have worked outside the teaching field, but I’ve only been teaching 14 years,” she said. “And before that I worked for AT&T, I worked for law firms. And I can tell you that, for me, when I was working in the private sector it was all about me: what could I do to get more money?

“Who could I throw under the bus if it meant I was going to get an advance, if it meant I was going to get a raise? And it’s not that way for me as a teacher.”

“Well, that’s unfortunate,” Stoner replied. “I can’t speak to your personal character.”

Counts and Catalana wondered if teachers would be demoted in pay if their performance went down, but Stoner and Powers said that, if the policy is based on corporate models, pay would not decrease if a teacher had a bad year but would instead go up during a good year.

“Once you’ve earned it, it’s yours,” Powers said. “And your not performing at a distinguished level the following year just affects what you might get the next year, it doesn’t affect what you have.”

With the idea of a bonus system off the table, Stoner offered the idea that a performance-pay model could be as simple as a teacher going up a step not based on years of teaching but based on whether they achieve at least a “proficient” level on the district’s teacher evaluation system, the Performance-Based Teacher Evaluation, or PBTE, a four-level system that expects teachers to rank as “proficient” but can rank them on the higher “distinguished” level. He did not understand why teachers would not object to their peers moving to a higher pay channel by getting a master’s degree, but object to the same teacher moving up in pay by good performance.

With some of the numbers the committee was talking about this spring, then-Chief Financial Officer Noel Knobloch, who retired in June, presented the board with three budget scenarios this summer, including one with merit pay built in. The board adopted a different budget that did not call for merit pay, with Powers saying she felt the budget projections with merit pay were more informational than anything, to show the board the effect merit pay could have on future budgets.

As part of the mandate of the MOU, the committee must formulate some type of feasibility study. To some members of the committee, legal review and presenting budgets with merit pay to the board amounted to the required “feasibility study.” They interpreted Elbert’s negative legal review and the board not adopting a budget with merit pay as decisions on the feasibility of merit pay itself.

“We had kind of two separate (feasibility studies),” Bierbaum Elementary music teacher Alison Helmer said. “We had the legal (review) that said no to that and then we had the money (review) … the board said that didn’t work, either. So both of those two little pieces, in different ways, were not feasible.”

Although some committee members thought they had satisfied that criteria by identifying a concept they liked and taking it for legal review, Powers said she saw that as a step toward development of a program, not a feasibility study in itself.