Fairfax County teachers propose cutting ‘extras’ in protest of lagging salaries

Some teachers in Fairfax County are planning to protest lagging salaries by cutting back on work that is outside of their contract, a move that could cause students to miss out on many extra after-school services that teachers provide.

The protest — known as a “work to the rule” action — could mean serious hits to student programs in the wealthy county that boasts a premier school system, the nation’s 11th largest. Teachers have proposed a stoppage of science and art fairs, extra academic help and extra credit projects, travel, Advanced Placement test review and even e-mail and chaperoning proms.

Perhaps most alarming to many parents, teachers also could stop writing recommendations for colleges, internships and academic academies.

“Time-consuming college recommendations will be curtailed if not eliminated in full,” a group of McLean High School teachers wrote in an open letter to the community. “Transcripts alone will be forwarded to college admissions offices.”

Concerned that teacher pay raises are in jeopardy as the county’s school board clashes with the Board of Supervisors over a tight budget, the faculty at McLean High says that teachers there “begrudgingly” are planning to eliminate the “extras” that take up much of teachers’ spare time, in protest. They think that average Fairfax teacher pay, which has slipped from tops in the region to middle of the pack as the county has struggled with its finances, has left them strapped for cash.

“Time is our only remaining commodity, because it’s certainly not financial remuneration,” said Dean Howarth, a physics teacher who has worked at McLean High for 26 years and said that many teachers have multiple jobs to make ends meet and that some strain to meet a seemingly endless workload. “The things I enjoy doing I don’t think I can keep doing.”

Fairfax County has long prided itself on its stellar public educational offerings, luring wealthy and prominent families in no small part because of its schools. But teachers say that the county’s economic woes have threatened the school system as budgets have been lean and teacher salaries have lagged behind other counties’. Fairfax used to lead the salary market for teachers, but in 2013, its average salary was sixth in the Washington region, just above Prince George’s County.

Howarth said that the lack of significant pay raises and the current budget fight have pushed teachers to protest. He said other teachers around the county have been discussing actions similar to the one planned at McLean.

Such protests can be risky, as they almost immediately affect students while making a broader point to the community. But they also can be effective — as they have been in Fairfax and nationwide — as it becomes clear how much teachers do beyond their contracted work day.

A group of about 50 McLean teachers presented parents at a PTSA meeting in January with a list of activities and projects that the teachers say they might not be able to continue next year if proposed salary increases are not approved. McLean PTSA president Wilma Bowers said parents worry about the effects of the teachers’ planned protest.

“They will be very concerned that services their children enjoy today will no longer be available,” said Bowers, whose daughter is a McLean High sophomore. For teachers, “this just demonstrates how desperate they are to bring attention to the issue. I would hope that it would not come to that.”

Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) said the planned protest could work against the teachers as he considers how to handle the budget.

“I think it’s a terrible tactic,” McKay said. “It sends the wrong message to the very kids they are trying to inspire. The victims in that situation will be the kids in our school system. . . . I think it’s downright unprofessional to tell you the truth.”

Work to the rule actions date to 1979 in Fairfax County, when teachers protested for a 9.4 percent salary increase. Most recently, teachers participated in a work-to-the-rule day in April 2006 calling for higher pay; they received a 5.9 percent pay raise the following year.

Now, Fairfax teachers are responding to years of stagnant salaries. From 2005 to 2009, teachers saw average annual cost-of-living and step increases of 5.4 percent. Since then, teachers have averaged a 1.4 percent annual increase, receiving a step increase once, in 2012, and two years of no increase at all, in 2010 and 2011.

That has caused the average teacher salary at Virginia’s largest school system to drop in rank considerably, making the countyless attractive to teachers than several of its neighbors in the Washington region. The average teacher salary in Fairfax this year is $67,245, while the average teacher salary in Arlington is $74,903 and the average in Montgomery County is $74,038, according to the Washington Area Boards of Education guide.

Fairfax County schools superintendent Karen Garza, who has made salary increases a priority in her first year on the job, has requested a 5.7 increase in county funding, including $41 million in proposed salary increases. Under Garza’s plan, school staffers could receive a 2.5 percent raise, equal to an average $1,675 in extra pay for 95 percent of schools employees.

But County Executive Edward L. Long Jr. proposed a 2 percent increase in county funding to the schools’ $2.5 billion budget last week. Garza said that 2 percent would not be sufficient to meet the schools’ needs, including the salary raises she has said are crucial to retain top-quality teachers.

“It goes without saying that if the revenue to the schools remains at 2 percent, then there will be even deeper cuts on the horizon,” Garza said last week after Long presented his proposed county budget.

Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock) said teacher salaries are an issue for the school board, as that board decides how it spends its county allocation, which amounts to about half of the county’s expenditures. He noted that this year’s budget discussion has been more tense than in previous years.

“I’m very disappointed with the tactics that the school board and superintendent are using,” Cook said. “I think what we all need to do is tone down a bit, but that’s not going to happen. I understand their concerns. But the tactics don’t help.”

McLean teachers say they enjoy helping students after school with physics problems, hosting clubs and coaching sports teams. But they said they are reaching their limits, seeing their pay hold steady while performance expectations rise.

“Teachers feel fed up,” said McLean parent David Edelman, who supports the teachers’ “work to the rule” proposal. Without additional funding from the county, “the situation is at a tipping point where we might see a decrease in the quality of our schools,” Edelman said.

School board member Jane K. Strauss, whose Dranesville district includes McLean High School, said that expectations have evolved significantly for teachers in recent years.

“The teachers are stressed,” Strauss said “What has changed for them is a tremendous work requirement that wasn’t there before.”

McLean Principal Ellen Reilly said she supports her teachers but does not condone their proposed work to the rule action.

“Our objective is to help children,” Reilly said. The proposal, she said, is “drawing a line in the sand and will ultimately affect the kids. I can’t stand by it. . . . The last thing I want to see is students getting hurt by this.”

Fairfax Education Association president Kimberly Adams said that the teachers organization supports the McLean faculty’s efforts but does not think a work to the rule action is appropriate to use during the budget discussions.

“FEA thinks it’s a positive tactic that has worked in the past,” Adams said. “But not right now.”

Garza, who was a longtime schools administrator in Texas, has a history of offering teacher raises to keep staff happy and to entice talented teachers to come to her districts. One of the tactics for raising salaries has been to cut staff positions, something she has proposed in her current budget.

While the county’s average teacher salary lags behind others in the region, it is still nearly $2,000 higher than the average Fairfax County government employee’s salary, which is $65,513, and higher than the average firefighter ($61,214) and librarian ($55,227) earn in a year. County spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald said average salaries can’t be directly compared because teachers work fewer days per year than other county employees.

Teachers have received, on average, a 3.4 percent raise annually during the past decade; a teacher earning $57,258 in 2005 — then the average salary — would now make about $79,600.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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