Asking for pay to go up, Fairfax teachers dress down

Walking the hallways at Woodson High School, it might be difficult to pick out some of the teachers from the swarms of students dressed in hoodies and sweatpants.

Instead of oxford shirts paired with neckties or blouses on top of dress slacks, about half of the Woodson faculty have been “dressing down” as part of a demonstration for better pay. The campaign, which members of the Fairfax County school’s English department helped organize, is gaining momentum as teachers at other schools are taking notice.

Drew Marvin, 41, has been sporting T-shirts in his English classes since last Monday. Katherine Sebunia, 34, now wears jeans and comfortable sneakers as she instructs her Woodson students.

“We want to help Fairfax understand what makes Fairfax such a great place to live, because it’s not mountain vistas or beachfront access. It’s world-class schools,” Marvin said. “And while the county Board of Supervisors says it’s world-class, our own teachers have to struggle to pay mortgages.”

Karen Garza, the county’s new schools superintendent, has said that teacher compensation is one of her top priorities, and her proposed budget for next year includes $41 million in salary increases. But it is unclear whether the county board will approve Garza’s budget or whether the raises are realistic as Fairfax faces a budget crunch.

“This campaign has been initiated by teachers and is not formally endorsed by FCPS,” schools spokesman John Torre said. “With that said, increasing compensation is a priority and the FY 2015 advertised budget includes a step increase for employees.”

The dress-down campaign is one of several tactics Fairfax teachers have adopted in their quest for raises after years of stagnant compensation. An online petition sponsored by Fairfax teacher groups and the county council of PTAs has more than 1,700 signatures. The Fairfax County Federation of Teachers has been placing advertisements in newspapers calling on county supervisors to increase school funding.

During the economic recession, Fairfax County made significant cuts to the schools budget and teachers saw pay freezes.

Teachers say their frustration stems from the fact that Fairfax, regarded as one of the nation’s premier school systems, now lags in average salary behind other school divisions in the Washington region. The average Fairfax teacher could earn about $7,500 more per year working over the county line in Arlington and about $6,900 more over the Potomac in Montgomery County, according to the 2014 Washington Area Boards of Education guide.

In 2014, the average teacher salary in Fairfax is $67,245, while the average teacher salary in Arlington is $74,903 and the average in Montgomery County is $74,038.

Seeking to highlight the pay disparity, a group of teachers in the Woodson English department began brainstorming ideas, Sebunia said. One teacher mentioned that maintaining a second wardrobe of professional attire to wear to school was becoming a hefty expense.

The group decided this month to begin wearing casual clothes to work as a protest. The county schools’ regulations have one line applying to teacher attire: “Employees shall dress and conduct themselves in a professional manner.”

“The idea was that we’re not going to spend money on professional clothes, we’re going to spend it on groceries,” said Sebunia.

Marvin said that Woodson faculty have the enthusiastic support of the principal, Jeff Yost.

“We have excellent teachers, and their dressing down in no way affects their teaching or student learning,” said Yost, whose wife is a teacher. “They arrive before the students and they stay after school for hours helping students and collaborating with their colleagues. Additionally, they spend hours outside of school grading work and planning class lessons. The 40-hour workweek is a joke when it comes to the work FCPS’s teachers, counselors and administrators do each week.”

Pay freezes have affected many teachers significantly. Sebunia said that she and her husband, who works in the Fairfax schools’ human resources department, both took second jobs in recent years to make ends meet.

Because of mandated retirement contribution increases, Sebunia said she and her husband actually saw their take-home pay decrease, despite small salary raises in recent years. As a result, Sebunia said, she can no longer afford day care for her 5-year-old daughter.

“As a teacher, you work very hard to help other people’s children be successful and get into good schools and colleges,” Sebunia said. “But as we do that, realistically our own children’s chances of going there get smaller and smaller. It’s demoralizing to realize all your efforts aren’t helping your own child.”

Marvin said that working in a classroom is a high-stress job and that the school system experiences significant turnover each year as teachers burn out. It also hurts, he said, to see teachers in neighboring school districts earning more.

“It saps our morale,” Marvin said. The dressing-down campaign “is a way for teachers to stand up for themselves.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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