Palamand, Trakas oppose pay hike in an attempt to slow deficit spending

Stormer disappointed anyone would complain about a raise

By Gloria Lloyd

The Mehlville Board of Education is increasing teacher salaries, but some members are calling for more fiscal restraint in light of future financial realities the district could be facing.

“Knowing what we know now … I think it would be fiscally irresponsible to vote for this and pass this proposal,” board Vice President Venki Palamand said at the June 12 meeting. “Because we’re adding to salaries — which is a reoccurring expense — without knowing if we get (more) revenues from the public.”

The district’s one-year memorandum of understanding, or MOU, with the Mehlville National Education Association, or MNEA, passed 5-2, with Palamand and Secretary Lori Trakas dissenting.

The agreement includes an average 2.4-percent salary increase for teachers, which adds up to $2.5 million more in budgets for next year and future years.

The board also voted 7-0 to give nonclassified employees the same percentage raise that they gave teachers.

With the teachers voting on negotiations right before the June 12 meeting at which the board was slated to discuss the budget, the board postponed the budget discussion until its next meeting on June 26.

Besides pay increases, the MOU also calls for two more school days to be tacked on to the 2015-2016 school year. Although board President Ron Fedorchak has historically voted against teacher contracts if they do not include more school days, he served as part of the negotiating team this year and said he was happy that a longer school year came out of negotiations.

“This is a first step (to a longer year),” he said. “So I think that’s money well spent. Like I said, it was a tough decision, and I do realize that we have some budget issues … But it’s the right thing to do for the teachers, and I do see the additional time as being something that’s worth it.”

Palamand and Trakas said they voted against the raise to slow the district’s rate of deficit spending out of its $21 million reserve fund. Five-year projections show the reserves dwindling to nothing if no changes are made to the district’s finances.

Because salaries are an annual reoccurring expenditure, increasing salaries now could take $12 million out of the district’s reserves over just the next few years, Palamand said.

Just before the meeting, 79 percent of teachers voted for the agreement, and 21 percent voted against it. The last MOU passed in 2012 with 93 percent of teachers’ votes.

The MNEA’s lead negotiator for the MOU was Michael Ghormley, a Mehlville High School teacher and assistant football coach.

Ghormley told the Call that among teachers voting against the pay package, they cited reasons including that Mehlville is ranked 25th among 27 area districts in starting teacher salary and 24th of 26 districts in maximum teacher salary, below unaccredited and provisionally accredited districts.

The average salary for a teacher in the district is $55,000, compared to the average per-capita salary of a district taxpayer, which is $33,000, Trakas said, adding that the district’s average salary ranks higher than some wealthier districts like Ladue.

The MOU calls for a study of Mehlville’s salary scale to see how it compares to other districts. Fedorchak said the study will also look at merit pay, which the board agreed earlier this year to pursue for teachers.

For the average teacher, the pay increase is the equivalent of $50 each paycheck before taxes, and for teachers at the top of the scale, the pay increase is the equivalent of $28 per paycheck, Ghormley noted, adding that teachers at the top of the scale have had their salaries frozen the past three years.

Board member Samantha Stormer noted that she has children in the district and praised the quality of Mehlville’s teachers, but added that she is disappointed that anyone would complain about getting a raise. Some Mehlville teachers have publicly complained online that this year’s compensation package is not high enough.

“I come from a different line (of thinking),” she said. “Getting a raise is getting a raise, whether it be $20 or $50 added to my paycheck. I appreciate that, because not all companies can give raises every year, and I think we’ve done a very good job of giving raises every year to our teachers, especially for the past few years.

“Is it something I’d like us to continue to do? Absolutely. But being fiscally responsible at the same time has to happen, and not taking away from (the classroom). The (financial) numbers scare me, but I’m with Ron (Fedorchak) — if we can get more time for our kids, I’m happy to give more money, and I’m comfortable with that.”

Teachers have gotten a raise every year since Palamand first came on the board eight years ago, he told the Call. One year, teachers did not get a raise, but they received a double salary increase the next year to make up for it.

“Let’s be realistic. If we don’t do this, they’ll be leaving in droves, and we get all first-year teachers,” board member Jean Pretto said.

Board member Kathleen Eardley said the salary increase was a way to thank teachers for their role in making Mehlville a National District of Character.

“We are nationally recognized for that, and this is just a thank you,” she said. “Our budget is our budget, and we’re within our budget.”

“This budget thing, the thing is, it’s fluid,” Pretto agreed. “There are so many things we don’t know … Some of us are very, very optimistic about where this is going.”

Superintendent Eric Knost noted that the district currently has high reserves.

“We have some of the highest balances right now that we’ve ever had in this district,” he said. “For years and years and years, (teachers) hear, ‘It’s not the right time, it’s not the right time.’ That’s been something that’s said from this side of the table for a long time …

“We truly do have some of the outstanding educators in this area and in this state … I applaud them for sticking around,” he added.

The high amount of reserves led to specific questions during negotiations from the MNEA about what the district planned for the reserve fund, Fedorchak said, adding that although the finances are worrying, continuing to fund salary increases is a way to keep the best teachers in Mehlville.

“We don’t want them going to Rockwood, for instance,” he said.

“Get used to it,” Knost joked.

Knost is leaving Mehlville June 30 to serve as Rockwood’s superintendent. Current Springfield Public Schools Superintendent Norm Ridder will take the job as Mehlville’s interim superintendent July 1.