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School district faces backlash over salary proposal

The Superior School Board met with backlash this week after unveiling a plan to eliminate salary schedules for support staff and administration employees.

About 50 people — many of them school district employees — attended Monday’s meeting to speak against the proposed changes.

The proposal includes two elements: a salary adjustment for employees and the elimination of salary schedules, which provide employees with annual step increases.

Superintendent Janna Stevens said the district calculated salary adjustments based on the findings of a recent salary comparability study. The study compared the wages paid in Superior with those paid by surrounding districts.

Results showed most support staff employees were underpaid, but six job classifications fell within an acceptable salary range: school bus driver, school assistant, storeroom clerk, assistant storeroom clerk, carpenter and painter. Under the proposal, employees in those six categories would not receive a salary adjustment but would get a 1 percent raise instead.

For administration employees, only three positions came in below the average salary. Those employees would be granted a salary adjustment, and the others would receive a 1 percent raise.

All administration and support staff employees would lose their annual step increases.

Stevens said the changes were discussed by the district’s labor management committee, but not all employees agree with the final results.

Sally Thompson, a school nurse for the district, was dismayed by the starting wage for school assistants. She is a member of the labor management committee and said she has raised the issue before.

“Their starting salary is $8.93 an hour,” Thompson said.

The group is slated for only a 1 percent increase under the current plan, which Thompson said is simply wrong.

“Whoever did the study, you could not find a comparison where schools had school assistants,” she said. “So for that reason there was nothing to compare them to, so they’re stuck at this $8.93 an hour and a 1 percent raise.

“I just feel so badly for them. Most of them work two hours a day, and they’re buying gas and milk and eggs just like the rest of us.”

Thompson asked the Board needed to revisit the issue and give school assistants a fair wage.

“Morale is so low among all the support staff,” Thompson said.

Bus drivers at Monday’s meeting also objected to the School Board’s proposal. They’d rather keep their step increases than receive a 1 percent raise.

“We negotiated a year and a half ago to get our steps — the first time ever that we got our steps — and I just feel that we did a lot of hard work to get them into play and now they’re being taken away,” said Kari Case Holmes, a school district bus driver for more than 10 years.

Holmes serves with Karen Johnson on the labor management committee to represent the district bus drivers, but both women said meetings were often scheduled when they could not attend due to work conflicts. As a result, they say, the voices of the bus drivers have not been heard.

Jim Mattson, a former AFSCME Council 40 staff representative, asked the Board to listen to what the bus drivers actually want.

 “They want their steps maintained,” he said. “You’ve heard the explanation why. It gives incentive. It gives them something to look forward to in their professional lives.”

He also added that he was not “overly impressed” by wage studies.

“When you start getting into deeper, more complicated analysis of wage studies, you find out immediately that they aren’t very simple,” Mattson said. “They’re very complex and in my opinion subject to a lot of interpretation and possibly a lot of subjective cherry picking.”

Johnson and Holmes also questioned the findings of the wage study. In particular, they objected to the district’s use of data from private bus companies to arrive at an average salary for the region.

“How can you use private companies as a comparison?” Johnson said. “Did you go to restaurants too then for food service? Because that would be the same thing.

“It’s comparing apples to oranges.”

Stevens said the district looked at private companies because some local districts, like Proctor and Cloquet, have outsourced their busing. She did agree, however, to look at the data again before the School Board’s next meeting on Tuesday.

Board member Sheila Keup asked if the Board could table the item and look for money to keep step increases in place, but Vice President Christina Kintop said the money just isn’t there.

 “Where will the money come from?” she asked. “I need to know that as a Board member.”

The proposal moved forward by the Board at Monday’s meeting would cost the district nearly $400,000. The total salary increase for the support staff would be about $318,000, and the increase for administration would be about $77,000.

If the district kept step increases in place but froze wages at current levels, the cost would be about $270,000, Stevens said.

The Board voted unanimously to move the proposal forward to Tuesday’s regular meeting, with the stipulation that Stevens revisit the figures from the wage study.