By COLLIN BROOKS
Washington County has taken its turn to lead the classroom revolution in the area, having already spent close to $1 million dollars on an injection of technology into the system. And with future plans to spend tens-of-millions more on facilities during the next few years, there appears to be plenty of money going around.
However, very little of the close to $100 million dollars that has been or will be spent by the Washington County Board of Education over the last two decades has yet to go toward a teacher salary increase.
That is the next phase of the system’s Washington Way Vision. New Washington County Director of School’s Kimber Halliburton admitted that she has yet to map out a plan of action, but she did say that rewarding the teachers of the system is high on her priority list.
“That is certainly something that I want to address and it is critically important,” Halliburton said. “Not just teacher pay, but administrative pay. We have to be competitive with the surrounding city and county school districts to compel talent to continue to come to Washington County.”
The county currently averages the highest salary of six other surrounding counties with an average of $49,038.50, which is just over $1,300 more than the second highest in Greene County. However, it fails in comparison to the $57,434.50 that the Johnson City School System averages.
Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge says that if you are trying to catch the city systems, then you will always fall short.
“If you are comparing Washington County to the surrounding counties, then there is not an issue,” Eldridge said. “The challenge is this; if you want to pay the county teachers the same as city teachers, you have to understand that it is mathematically impossible.”
Eldridge said that a large funding advantage for the cities allows them to allocate more money.
“It’s not only the fact that 86 or 88 percent of all sales tax in this (Washington) county is collected in Johnson City and only half of that is shared with the two school systems,” Eldridge said. “But it’s also the fact that Johnson City gets $5 million a year in state shared sales tax that Washington County doesn’t get any of.”
With that extra source of funding, Eldridge questions whether the divide it creates is a bigger deal than people make it.
“That revenue advantage has created what I believe is a constitutional disparity in the educational opportunity that we provide these kids,” Eldridge said. “And I don’t think that you can deny that.”
Besides an educational divide, it also gives other local systems an advantage to hire away some of the county’s better teachers.
“When you’ve got new teachers and they owe thousands of dollars — because they took out student loans in order to get through school and get their degree — and they want to get in a position that will help them pay those loans off, it is concerning for me,” Washington County Education Association President LaDawn Hudgins said.
Hudgins said that she and Halliburton have yet to sit down and thoroughly discuss what the plan of action might be for the county, but she did say that she was confident in the new director’s vision.
That vision has included an influx of technology into the school system, which Hudgins appreciates, but she still says that teacher pay is a big concern.
“Technology is great, building the new schools is great, but my concern is, what are we going to do about making sure that teachers and support staff in Washington County are being compensated for what they are doing?” Hudgins said.
Halliburton shares that concern and she says that she would like to do more than just compensate her teachers with kind words.
“I want to honor their work with pay,” Halliburton said. “Right now, I can’t honor their work with pay, right now, all I can do is honor their work with praise and improved professional development. Professional development comes at a much cheaper price than raising the salaries of 650 certificated staff.”
But before teacher pay can properly be addressed, Halliburton said that the building projects need to get underway.
“We do need to really get these facilities built or at least construction underway, because any delays in that can delay our ability to critically look at teacher pay,” Halliburton said. “I’m not saying they have to be fully built before we start, but we have to get the price tag and all of that bidded out and negotiated. Because we still don’t know how much these facilities will cost.”
The technology money that Halliburton was able to disperse was already there when she stepped into office, so none of that could be used for teacher salary increases. Funding does not currently exist for a teacher salary increase, but Halliburton — whose own daughter is a teacher in Nashville — hopes that some movement will happen.
“Our teachers are our number one public relations ambassadors in the school district and they have the most positive impact in enrollment in our schools,” Halliburton said. “If there is money to be found, I will do my absolute best to find it, without another tax increase. We just simply can’t do that to our citizens or our teachers, because they are taxpayers too.”
For Eldridge it boils down to answering a simple question.
“To me, it really comes down to a question of this: Are we trying to pay the teachers of Washington County the same or more than Johnson City? Or are you trying to pay them fairly?” Eldridge said. “Because if you are trying to pay them as much as Johnson City, then it is a losing battle.
“But if you want the teachers of Washington County to be paid fairly, then let’s look at all the systems around us, let’s look at the state average for teachers pay and let’s look at their education, qualification and their performance. And then let’s look at what needs to be done to fairly pay them.”