The Ladysmith School Board voted 7-0, Wednesday, to approve a 2 percent increase compensation package for all employees in the 2020-21 school year.
The decision came after staff earlier in the meeting questioned employee pay as the board has reduced positions and filled vacancies with younger lesser-paid replacements when longtime teachers have retired. Staff also questioned spending on gym improvements and hiring a part-time business manager.
“If this district is going to hire a business manager then the money should come out of the superintendent’s salary not be an additional salary,” long-time teacher Lauri Keeble said.
Keeble cited multiple staffing situations, saying there are more office staff than teachers and teachers were not compensated for the extra work required to teach in class and online during the coronavirus pandemic. After a couple of months the board did provide one extra workday per month, which Keeble called helpful but they have often turned into meeting days.
“We need to value those in the trenches and stop putting the budgetary issues on the back of the teachers,” Keeble said. “To see the gym completely redone with the staff didn’t get a raise is disheartening. The bleachers did need to be replaced but a complete overhaul of the entire gym I am not sure about especially when we didn’t get a raise.”
Teacher Kari Hetchler compared Ladysmith to neighboring school districts, saying a few miles away she could receive greater benefits as an employee not taking district health insurance.
“I want to be here, but when it comes down to every year missing out on that $5,000 to $10,000, that is a lot of money when it adds up. I would like to see our district move to a place that is more comparable to our surrounding districts,” Hetchler said.
Teacher Brian Groothousen called on the board to find alternatives to funding salaries. He noted wages are not keeping up, adding the same percentage needs to be added to salary schedule cells as well as this year’s staff.
“They are not keeping up, and what is happening surrounding wages are increasing and ours are kind of staying stagnant,” Groothousen said. “We have to continue to move the salary schedule as well as get teachers moving through the steps on that salary schedule as well so we can stay competitive and keep our young teachers here.”
Teacher Rick Vollendorf cited numerous instances of staff turnover and reductions. He noted the district saved about $175,000 in salaries and benefits when two staff members left last year for jobs elsewhere. He also noted hiring lesser paid young staff to succeed retiring teachers, also a cost savings.
“Instead of taking that money and putting it into staff returning puts into balancing the budget,” Vollendorf said.
The motion speaks for itself, according to School District Administrator Laura Stunkel, who qualifies for a raise under the motion as do custodians, support staff and all others who work for the district.
“It is exactly how it is stated, 2 percent overall for all employees,” Stunkel said.
School Board President Todd Novakofski noted the Consumer Price Index and cost of living.
About 70 million Americans will see a 1.3 percent increase in their Social Security benefits and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments in 2021. Federal benefit rates increase when the cost-of-living rises, as measured by the Department of Labor’s Consumer Price Index.
“We all understand,” Novakofski said.
Novakofski added the board is well aware of the current staff benefit situation that the board is trying to address, but “As you know, budget constraints are just tremendous as far as what we can do, as far as salaries and as far as benefits.”
Novakofski added the gym improvements were funded through the district’s Capital Improvement Fund that was established with leftover funds from previous construction project loans. This money could only be used on construction items one a 5-year wait period ended, or face losing the money altogether.
“It never could have been used for salaries, compensation or anything like that.It never could, and it still can’t.We are kind of stuck. It would be nice if we could put the money instead of the gym into salaries. It is not an option. It never was,” Novakofski said.
Novakofski cited the negative effects the district now faces due to declining enrollment, closing of Mount Senario College and halting Flambeau Mine operations. He said the district “is stuck.”
“We are in a tight spot. We are working on it,” Novakofski said. “It has slowly been getting better. You have to admit that, but there is a long way to go.”
The board increased compensation with little discussion after a 90 minute executive session.
In other matters, the board:
— Voted unanimously to approve WPS as the district’s insurance carrier for the 2021-22 school year. As a result, staff retain the same insurance carrier two years in a row.
— Approved a $1,339 transfer from the Senior Class Fund to Project Graduation Fund as this year’s graduating class fundraised for a prom in 2020 but that event was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Other Project Graduation fundraisers this school year also have been canceled due to the coronavirus, further limiting what seniors have been able to raise for graduation related activities. Past precedent administrative decisions have prevented the senior class from donating fundraised money back to themselves.
— Voted unanimously to approve a $10,255 painting addition contract with Barefoot Painters for the gym ceiling following the recent completion of wall painting. The project will help repair an issue with old latex paint peeling off the ceiling. The work is eligible for ESSER II Fund under the district’s Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act funds.
— Approved a Professional Speech Therapists contract for three days per week serving 24 students. The service was used last year, but will be used moreso in the 2021-22 school year. The district has been unable to fill a speech and language teaching position, after posting the vacancy. The service will be provided virtually, supplemented with a classroom aide. This system has worked well, Stunkel told the board.
— Tabled a $140,310 bid to replace air handling equipment for the Ladysmith Middle & High School auditorium and pool areas, which is on a list of deferred maintenance issues to be included in a Spring 2022 referendum. Funding could come from the Education Stabilization Fund through the CARES Act for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER Fund). The matter is scheduled to be considered at the board’s April 28 reorganization meeting.
— Tabled transfer of LHS Scholarship Foundation Funds to the Rusk County Community Foundation. RCCF representatives presented information highlighting its rate of return on investments, but board members wanted more information about transferring taxpayer dollars to an outside agency. The board requested legal counsel on the matter.
— Tabled an $18,000 contract proposal with Teamworks for comprehensive strategic planning.