The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors may have pulled off a political miracle this week with its vote against the pay increase being sought by teachers, or it may only have succeeded in postponing the fight.
The supervisors agreed to go along with the School Board recommendation for teacher pay, despite pleas for higher salaries from dozens of parents, teachers, students and some civic groups at public hearings earlier this month.
The county board also approved a delicate resolution to "ensure that appropriate resources will be available when requested by the School Board" next year.
Supervisors said they are waiting for a report from a 12-member commission appointed by Superintendent Robert R. Spillane that is expected to recommend not only more money for teachers but an entirely new salary structure. The commission, headed by former School Board Chairman Rodney Page, plans to issue its report by summer, in time for the School Board to consider its recommendations when assembling next year's budget.
This year the county plans to give teachers a 4 percent cost-of-living raise -- the same as it gives all county employes -- and to add extra money for beginning teachers and the most experienced teachers. Teacher associations had asked for at least an 8.8 percent cost-of-living raise, and more money for teachers in the middle range of the pay scale who will get only their annual step raises and the cost-of-living increase. But the county put their concerns on hold this year.
If the commission report and subsequent School Board action placates angry teachers and parents, it will be a victory for not only the supervisors but for Spillane, who arrived in the county last July with the intention of making Fairfax County a national leader in education issues.
"If we're able to pull it off with style and class and as a model that can be followed elsewhere, it will be a major plus in his whole career here, and a major plus for the county," said county board Chairman John F. Herrity.
For the moment, the vote placated Donna Caudill, president of the Fairfax Education Association, which represents most of the county's 7,000 teachers. "It says the supervisors understand there is a problem with teacher salaries and they do need to address that problem," she said.
Caudill said that the vote does not help county teachers this year. "You have to understand that teachers are very frustrated," she said, calling morale the lowest it has been in years.
County teachers have been staging a work slowdown since late last year to protest the county's unwillingness to give them more money. Some school club meetings and other events have been cancelled or rescheduled because teachers will not work after school or at night, although officials say the academic program has not suffered.
Caudill said she will not recommend the work-to-the-rule slowdown be called off until she can gauge the mood of her members in light of Monday's vote by the supervisors. If it is not called off, the FEA will be in the odd position of protesting the county's lack of action on teacher pay while its president praises the supervisors' apparent commitment to action in the future.
The supervisors, meanwhile, are caught between their desire to please the 51 percent of county households with children in the schools, and their need to be accountable to the 49 percent that do not. Supervisors say that when they meet the average person at civic meetings, teacher pay is not brought up, that it is not a burning issue.
One way to appeal to the households without children in the schools -- and to local businesses that are playing a growing role in school policy -- is to link the extra pay to a requirement that only good teachers be given bonuses. Parents also are demanding proof of teacher competency. For Herrity, who heads his own insurance company, such a link is critical.
"I'm not interested in an across-the-board gain," Herrity said. "I'm in sales myself, and people that have incentives to do things usually do them better."
Page, too, said he believes the public will buy higher teacher pay only if it is accompanied by a teacher evaluation system. "Not only is it good business, but the confidence the school system needs to inspire in the people who pay the money for schools is brought about by a good evaluation system," he said.
Page, a lawyer, said his commission will embrace a broad range of pay issues in making its report, which he hopes to have ready by the end of June.
The panel will examine the system of annual step raises, which Page said reflects "all sorts of historical quirks" that are not necessarily logical. Page said he hopes the commission will recommend the structure be overhauled, although he emphasized he cannot speak for other commission members. Any restructuring would require more money, he said.
The commission also will look at how much teachers earn compared with other county workers and those in private industry. Fairfax County teacher pay, which averages $29,000, is among the highest for teachers nationwide, but Page said the county should look at a "broader market" in setting a salary scale.
With a national teacher shortage predicted -- and already showing up in specialty areas such as math and science -- the county must "recognize we're in competition with the private sector," Page said.
"It is my perception that the commission is interested in improving the relative position of teacher compensation, vis-a-vis other county employes," Page said. "It's in anticipation of a resolution that says at least that much that the supervisors took their position."