On Consent: AISD Employees See Increased Wages

A 1.5% increase will go to district employees

The Austin Independent School District staff will get a 1.5% pay raise next year. That's less than employee union Education Austin initially asked for, but their hope is that a new incentive program will mean staff at the district's most demanding campuses will see extra pay in return for career development. AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz and Education Austin President Ken Zarifis signed a consultation agreement on May 22 approving the pay increase. Pending approval from the board of trustees, it will take effect July 1.

As with all teaching employees, AISD staff have learned that pay raises are not a given. After a wage freeze during the 2011-12 school year, salaries bounced back with a 3% bump the following year – an improvement, but still not enough to match rising living costs in the Austin area. Next came a 1.5% bonus, paid for with a one-off state payment. After that expired came two years of 2% increases, followed by 3% in the 2015-16 school year, and finally a 4% bump last July.

In that context, the 1.5% increase is definitely on the lower end, but the union knew it was walking into a difficult financial setting before negotiations started. The district was already facing a $30 million deficit, and that number was rising fast, even with no pay raise. The original budget projection was for no base pay increase, but EA pushed for 3%. With that clearly off the table, Zarifis said, "We tried to get a mix of 2 percent for classified [hourly workers] and 1.5 percent for everyone else," but the district didn't want to stratify in that way; they countered with 1%, but the union wouldn't go below 1.5%, and threatened to declare an impasse in negotiations. Had that happened, the matter would have gone to the AISD board. Rather than face that unpredictable body, the district settled on 1.5%.

But that's just the baseline salary. Zarifis is hoping many teachers see a much bigger bump under the Professional Pathways for Teachers, a new system designed to encourage professional development. As pioneered in Baltimore by the American Federation of Teachers, EA's national parent body, staff will receive points for training, which translate into increases in baseline pay. This comes upon the expiration of the old REACH program – designed to incentivize teachers to stay at schools with high-needs populations, such as kids from economically disadvantaged households, or English-language learners. Under PPfT, staff at those campuses will see their points accelerated. As a result, Zarifis said, teachers who commit to ongoing training could see their baseline pay increase by thousands of dollars over their career, "and that never goes away."

The consultation agreement also includes a slightly tougher pill to swallow, with health insurance taking effect at the end of the year. Currently, employees are offered three options: a free health savings account (HSA); a free preferred provider organization (PPO) plan; or a buy-up option, PPO Choice. Under the consultation agreement, the zero-dollar HSA remains, the free PPO goes, and there will be two buy-up options PPO Seton joins PPO Choice. Currently, 60% of AISD employees use the free PPO – to offset their buy-up cost, the district agreed to increase its contribution, and create structured tiered staff contributions, meaning janitors will pay less than senior administrators for the same care.

The loss of the free PPO will be a blow to AISD, as its health care plan has always been one of its best recruiting tools. With high teaching costs, plus the burden of recapture, teacher base salaries have lagged as far as $5,000 behind comparable neighboring districts. However, Zarifis said he hopes the balance between the pay raise, PPfT opportunities, and above-average health care will keep AISD competitive. "It's a challenge to retain staff, but it's a challenge to retain staff in every district in this state," he said.

In total, AISD staff costs rise $11 million next year, part of a $58 million predicted revenue shortfall. That's due less to the wage increase than to the $320 million the district will send to the state next year under the "Robin Hood" school finance recapture system. Whatever the cause, the district now faces a dip into savings to cover costs. Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley's office forecasts that AISD will still have $180 million in the general fund balance at the end of fiscal year 2018. Overall, Zarifis said, "With what we're playing with, and a $58 million deficit, that we're able to pull out $11 million extra in compensation – I'm not happy with the result, but I'm proud of the effort."

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