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In advance of Election Day Nov. 7, Charlottesville Tomorrow has produced in-depth nonpartisan voter guides, featuring exclusive one-on-one interviews with all the candidates for the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and Albemarle County School Board. In advance of the election, we will also feature their responses to important questions about their qualifications, priorities, and key quality of life issues so that our citizens can compare candidates’ answers and make an informed choice.
Charlottesville Tomorrow’s 2017 Election Center website also features candidates in the city of Charlottesville and links to the full written transcript and audio of these interviews.
All the following passages are verbatim excerpts from our interviews.
ALBEMARLE COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD, SECOND IN A SERIES
Jack Jouett District
Kate Acuff * Incumbent
In the past year we’ve had between 200 to 300 letters from teachers asking that we’d take a fresh look at how they’re compensated what the market basket has and we did a study that was reported out I believe in the spring. Their concerns were that you can’t afford to be a teacher and live in Albemarle County and Albemarle County is an expense county to live in and a lot of our teachers are delighted to be working for a top tier high performing school division that they can’t afford to send their own kids here. So that’s a real challenge and we’ve had conversations with the Board of Supervisors about the need for more affordable housing which they realize is also an issue for police and others. The other issue that the teachers raised was why are we looking at these 26 different school divisions as our comparison group we should only be looking at top performing school divisions and so we had a study that looked at that to see where we were in that mix if you look at 10 top ranked school divisions in the state interestingly enough we did pretty well — mostly. I mean we were right in the middle of the top 10 performing school divisions in the state. Where we fell down was areas that we had cut during the Great Recession. Stipends for teachers for doing extra things like coaching or being a head of a department or other kinds of activities that they do, we way below on that one. And we were not we were below on more senior, more experienced teachers. You know 15 years out or with a couple extra degrees. We flattened out pretty quickly. So, we have begun talking about whether we should change our market basket there’s pros and cons to that. I mean if you do a ranking system changes every year right column and costing out what it would take to bring us up even if we didn’t use that as our market basket and looking at you know some sort of a longer term plan for doing that because we probably can’t write a check this year. And making the whole compensation issue more transparent to the teachers because you can say you can have a two percent raise, but as you may know that depends on your grade levels at all the different stratifications and some teachers might get three percent some might not get any so that’s a real challenge.
I think we need to boost teacher compensation. We had 300 teachers write in letters last year about the need to get more compensation. I know that we need to get based on the letters, we hired a consultant who did a great job and told us that we are actually pretty competitive, but we might be comparing ourselves to the wrong target market. So I think it’s worth exploring whether we need to be doing a different target market. I was not particularly pleased with their plan in terms of it changing, the target market changing every year. I thought that would be a confusing metric to base ourself off of, but they’re looking at it again, and I think at the next school board meeting, it’ll be the next one- not the one tomorrow-geez there’s one tomorrow- the one after that, they’ll be going over it. 6 So yeah, I think our teachers- I think the point of teacher compensation is so that is we can retain and recruit the best teachers possible. I think we are doing a pretty good job at that. Albemarle County is- I think- in our local region where teachers want to go, in comparison to surrounding counties. It’s a good place to work, I think we should be proud of that. I also think we should always prioritize teachers and their satisfaction. There are also other ways that we can promote teacher satisfaction, and it doesn’t always have to be through compensation. It can be through giving them the support and tools that they need to do their job. I know when I was a teacher, it was difficult to manage the expectations that I had and feel like I could maintain a family life. I didn’t have my boys at that point, when I first started teaching, I didn’t have my boys, and I remember it was just all encompassing of my time. And so that’s something that you can also do to boost teacher retention and make them happy other than compensation. Performance measurements are assuming – “What would you change about teacher compensation and performance measurements if elected?” – I don’t think teachers’ evaluations should depend entirely on SOL testing. We have different populations at work. I’m not a big fan of SOL testing to begin with. I do believe in assessments, I think they can be a very valuable tool in terms of making sure your students are progressing, but I also think they can be problematic. I am laughing at myself because I’m like “how am I talking about SOLs when the topic is teacher compensation,” but if you said that other interviews lasted thirty minutes to an hour, I imagine that this has happened to other people. So with SOLs, I’ll just say this story that my brother, my brother struggled with SOLs, he had a reading disability, and he is a smart kid. In fact, so all of my brothers are in the military now, he’s smart, he’s motivated, he’s a great kid, but reading is the block to every single test on the SOL. You can’t do well on the math section, you can’t do well on the science section, you can’t do well on anything if you can’t do well on the reading. And for him, what that set-up was, basically starting in 3rd grade, a life-time-not a career, not a lifetime- a school career of frustration and getting it reinforced constantly that you’re a problem. His teachers thought he was a problem. You need extra help, you need extra work, you’re not- it’s just, it’s bad, and so much so that recently, I remember we were talking and he said something, “Oh well you’re the smart one, it’s what you do, you’re the smart one.” And I’m like that’s just a bad mentality to get out of school. And so, with that in mind- drawing this back to the question- I do not think teachers should have to look at students as test numbers, and I feel like they’re encouraged to do that when their personal evaluation and performance measurement is directly tied to SOL scores. I hope I tied that together well.
Well you know the county recently hired a consultant to do a study on our teacher compensation because I believe last year, I think they got 200 letters or something from teachers in the county saying we really feel we are not being paid enough. You know we’re struggling, we’re not able to afford to live in the community where we are teaching, we can’t support our family on a teaching salary, and so I really appreciate the fact that this school board took that seriously and decided to look into it. So the consultant looked at our comparison market of which school systems we were holding ourselves up against, and seeing how our salaries stacked against them, and then they actually decided, they recommended to change our comparison market. So instead of looking at, it was a very wide range of you know probably 30 school systems across the state, they’re now comparing us to the top-10 in the state as far as school system quality, and how they’re rating the school system quality is they’re using a ranking system from an organization called Niche, which is actually a for-profit company. And what’s interesting about those rankings is they change every year, and so we’re not always going to be comparing ourselves to the same school systems year by year. I’m interested to see how that’s going to play out. But it was it was his recommendation that we changed the comparison market. And it was also their recommendation that we are not comparing salary related to cost of living, but that we are comparing salary related to the cost of labor, and the cost of labor is what is the industry paying for that particular job across the state instead of trying to say ‘but it costs too much to live in Fairfax and it costs this much to live in Richmond’. So it was interesting to hear him talk through that process. Basically the consultant found that our pay is competitive across the school systems in the state up until about 15 years of experience, and it’s interesting that’s right around when the teachers are starting to say ‘I’m really feeling the pinch guys, I really am not feeling like I’m being paid fairly.’ Right around when we get to about 15 years of experience the teachers slowly start to drop down, and then they are not being paid at the same rate of their peers across the state, and so I think that we should definitely increase teacher pay so that we are competitive. I would love to be the best in the state to be honest. I would have no problem with being the best paying school system in Virginia. You know we like to be innovative in Albemarle County, let’s be innovative and be the leaders of teacher pay. And it’s not just about making sure our teachers can afford to buy a house. I think that honestly, teacher compensation across our country is not where it should be, and that this is about elevating the profession. It’s about recruiting high quality candidates. It’s about retaining the people that we have now, because we do know that on the horizon there is a teacher shortage coming. So you know, why would someone go into teaching when with a master’s degree we might pay them some $45,000 a year and their friend who has a master’s degree is making $80,000 a year. It’s really hard to look at that and compare them. So yes, I think that there is a fiscally smart way to do it. I don’t think any of our teachers are expecting to double their salary, It’s not what they’re asking. But we do need to pay attention to the data and make sure we are compensating our employees fairly.
*The response below was pulled from two questions answered by Graham Paige.
With expenses, the main thing would be teacher compensation and other employees within our system. We had a recent survey for teachers anyway that compared our system to other systems that would have a similar type of ranking, not just our neighboring counties, but other counties that would have similar rankings within the Niche system survey, where we were ranked, I think this year, maybe number three. So when we look at other systems like Fairfax, Alexandria, Arlington that would have a similar Niche ranking, we do pretty well in the beginning salary with those places, but then as time begins to increase, it becomes a greater and greater difference. And also with Master’s degrees or advanced degrees, we begin to fall down compared to those systems. So my main thing would be to try to see if we could come up with other funds to make sure that we can adequately compensate our teachers. Even though we appear to be doing pretty well, we can still do better I think. And in order to keep the best teachers here in the County, we have to make sure that we are doing something to make their salary comparable to other areas.
… The main thing would be to make sure that we…give better compensation for extra activities. Like if the teacher is sponsoring a club or doing some other activity outside of normal classroom activities, or if they are like a department head in high school departments, or doing something outside of their normal duties, we could give them probably bigger compensation for that. Sort of a salary increase. So that would help to close that gap some between us and some of the surrounding areas within that Niche survey.
This is a really tough one for me. I’m not going to name anybody here, but I knew a teacher last year, he was a first year teacher. He was sharing a house with another teacher in Albemarle County because they simply couldn’t afford to live by themselves. And when first year teachers are not earning an income that allows them to live in our community by themselves, that’s shocking to me. And especially more shocking when we look at and compare ourselves to other areas, such as other surrounding counties like Fairfax, Fredericksburg, those areas and we say that well we’re we are competitive in terms of salary when it comes to them. And we say that’s enough just to be competitive. I don’t think that it’s acceptable for us to settle on an issue like teacher pay. I don’t think it is at all, because teachers are the single greatest asset we have available to us as a public school system. That’s the truth of it, plain and simple. And when we talk about teacher pay we really need to make sure before anything else on the budget next year, I would love to see us go through an entire complete revisit of teacher pay. We make it so that our number one priority on the budget is ensuring that we have infrastructure and that we are paying our teachers a living wage, because if you start with that if you start with making sure that our teachers are fairly compensated that they can live in our community that they can sustain themselves then what we are going to see is a much more diverse talent pool when we’re looking at recruiting new teachers, recruiting new administrators, and we’re also going to see that teachers are more invested in the work they’re doing. I’m not saying that teachers are not invested, they’re incredibly invested, but the payoff that they’re getting from their time investment is simply not enough. We’re not doing enough to compensate them. And when we talk about performance metrics, I really think we need to stop using the Virginia Standards of Learning as performance metrics for teachers. I think that it’s an unfair way to measure teacher performance. And I think that when we look at especially when it comes to professional development with teachers, that peer review is an excellent opportunity for us to expand and increase how we are measuring the performance of teachers. I think that it’s much greater way to get a holistic sense of how the teacher is doing in the school community, in an academic perspective, how they’re doing with the lesson planning, and their interactions and their teamwork when it comes to cross-curricular lesson planning. And so I think we need to stop looking at it just how the students are performing on tests how are they performing on the SOLs. But look at how are they performing in the community as a whole and get peer review and have more of those options.