Grand Forks School Board says pay has to stay competitiveOn the heels of a highly criticized tax increase, the Grand Forks School Board approved pay hikes for school district employees Monday, saying they’re trying to keep salaries competitive and compensate for greater contributions required by the state pension fund.
By: Jennifer Johnson, Grand Forks Herald
On the heels of a highly criticized tax increase, the Grand Forks School Board approved pay hikes for school district employees Monday, saying they’re trying to keep salaries competitive and compensate for greater contributions required by the state pension fund.
It was the last of a series of salary and benefit increases negotiated earlier between the district and employee representatives. This time it was compensation increases for department heads, averaging about 10.1 percent spread over two years.
Newly-elected board Vice President Mike St. Onge said board members included the raises in the budget “by choice.”
“That’s how we designed it the night we approved it,” he said. “We always look at salary schedules with the idea of attracting and retaining quality staff. Everybody would like to be the highest-paid school district in the state, but we’re not there. We’ve actually slid backwards in (the overall compensation) ranking.”
Two months ago, the board proposed a 28 percent property tax increase, citing unexpected enrollment growth and a lack of federal funding. After public outcry, driven in part by the fact that schools had recently gotten more state funding, the board settled on a 21.6 percent tax increase and deficit spending totaling $5.4 million.
Salaries make up approximately 85 percent of the school’s budget.
Negotiators for teachers settled on a two-year wage hike that ranges from $2,550, or 7 percent, to $3,950, or 5.9 percent more compared to last school year. Teachers with more experience and education get a bigger dollar increase. Total compensation, including wages, insurance and pension contributions, will go up 9.9 percent for the average teacher.
Department heads will see a two-year wage hike that ranges from $5,335 to $10,317, all about 7 percent more than last school year. Total compensation will go up 10.1 percent.
Total compensation for principals and assistant principals will go up 12 percent.
Superintendent Larry Nybladh, the district’s top paid employee, got a $4,263 wage hike for this year, an increase of 2 percent. His salary is negotiated year to year, unlike the others.
Nybladh’s raise was meant to be smaller, according to School Board member Becca Grandstrand. “We were hoping that would encourage other ones to ask for lower raises, but it didn’t work.”
Nybladh, who was at a conference in Bismarck, was not available for comment.
St. Onge said the wage increases were earned, and they want to keep good staff in the district and pay them fairly for their job.
“ “The only way we can get our dollars from the public is through taxes,” he said. “When something happens, we can’t pass on tuition increases or anything like a college can.”
Business Manager Vicky Schwartz said Monday the pay increases were also intended to offset higher contributions that employees will be required to make to the state pension system in the next school year.
Compensation committees wanted to ensure employees’ take home pay wasn’t less in 2014-2015 compared to this year, she said.
Legislation passed in 2011 requires school districts to increase their contributions for each employee by 2 percent in 2014-2015. Employees must also pay 2 percent more.
Fay Kopp, the chief retirement officer for the North Dakota Teachers’ Fund for Retirement, said it’s primarily because the pension system suffered “significant investment losses” during the recession in 2008 and 2009. And, she said, there are more people retiring and living longer, which also impacts the system.
But even as would-be pensioners pay more, the benefits will decrease in some ways, according to Kopp. Changes in retirement formulas mean employees must work longer before retiring — their combined age and years of service must be 90 instead of 85 as before — and the payout would generally be lower — the pension payout will be based on the average of five not three best years’ salaries.
As the School Board moves forward, Grandstrand said she hopes board members stay more aware of the current financial situation in the future.
“I think all of our employees do a great job, but we need to be careful in terms of where we’re at,” she said.
Several board members said they are currently working on ways to make cuts without losing staff or reducing salaries.
Call Johnson at (701) 787-6736, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1736 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.