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Almost 30 teachers left employment in Cumberland County this past year.

The reasons have varied from concerns about COVID-19 to changes in family employment. Some, however, have taken positions in other counties that offer higher teacher pay.

“We can’t keep hemorrhaging teachers because they’re going somewhere else,” said Kim Wattenbarger, librarian at Stone Memorial High School, during a collaborative conferencing session April 22. 

Julia Timson, president of the Cumberland County Education Association, said 27 teachers had left the school system since July, though she noted some of those teachers could have left due to concerns about COVID-19, changes in family situation, or other reasons. But some, she said, have left for higher wages. 

Timson compared Cumberland County salaries to other school systems of similar size.

White County was tops among the evaluated counties, with a starting salary of $40,975. Teachers with a master’s degree earned $54,265 after 20 years.

In comparison, a first-year teacher in Cumberland County with a bachelor’s degree earns $36,187. By year 20, a teacher’s with a master’s degree earns $46,325.

“We need to look at this,” Timson said. “I don’t want to lose teachers to White County because it’s just as easy for them to drive there.”

She noted Cumberland County pays the insurance costs for teachers and dependents, which does improve the county’s compensation ranking. The school system splits the cost of insurance for spouses with the teachers.

“But insurance premiums will not pay your retirement,” Timson said. “I’ve got to talk salary.”

Tony Brock, 5th District representative, said there could be changes in benefits to help support higher salaries, but he added, “You could certainly beat a pay increase by hurting people in another area.”

He said, “I loved having a good, solid insurance, especially when I had children.”

Wattenbarger said she had grown up in Cumberland County and worked here throughout her career.

“We stayed here because this is home. But we shouldn’t be punished in our home,” she said.

Director of Schools Ina Maxwell agreed Cumberland County is “home,” but she said insurance benefits had been part of why she stayed with the school system for 33 years.

“Do we want to do better? Absolutely. Could we tackle all of  it at one time? It would be great if we could. Realistically, I think we need to take it in steps,” Maxwell said.

Cumberland County is still waiting on its first estimate of state funding from the state’s Basic Education Plan funding formula. That formula uses school system enrollment for much of the calculations and a move to keep funding levels at pre-pandemic amounts continues to work through the Tennessee General Assembly.

“If they don’t, that’s going to affect our budget,” Jim Inman, 1st District representative, said.

Cumberland County school enrollment is down about 500 students from last year.

“We’ve lost a school,” Kim Bray, human resources supervisor, said.

Inman said that much of a reduction in enrollment could result in a loss of personnel.

“I don’t think there’s any way we could absorb that kind of hit,” he said.

Maxwell said schools are reaching out to families who chose to homeschool this past year, the registration for elementary schools offered the week of May 17 at the home school and the week of May 25 at the high schools.

“Hopefully that will help those families trying to decide what they want to do, that we welcome them back. They can come to the schools and register and we will help them any way we can,” she said.

While the discussion involved teacher salaries, the teams have also discussed the school system’s salary schedule, which provides for annual step increases based on teacher experience and education.

Those increases average about 2% overall, but the individual steps do not provide consistent increases. The salary schedule also stops at 25 years of experience, though many teachers work to 30 years for full retirement — and many beyond.

Timson said, “There’s no rhyme or reason for how the percentages go. One year you might get a 1% step increase and then another year, boom, you get a 3% step increase.”

CCEA representatives proposed extending the salary schedule to 30 years and balancing the increases, which was estimated to cost about $1.3 million to implement.

Inman said the plan would require a 9- or 10-cent increase on the property tax rate to add $1.3 million to the schools budget.

“From a realistic standpoint, that’s not going to happen,” he said. “That’s just my opinion … I would love to have the money to bump up everybody’s pay, get it equalized. But if we go to the county commission and we ask for $1.3 million for pay increases — I don’t see it happening.”

Brock asked if there had been any calculations to expand the salary schedule to 30 years. There are approximately 200 teachers with 20 or more years of teaching experience.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said.

Maxwell said the school system needs to consider how to reward longevity for teachers who have dedicated their career to the school system.

“For those teachers who are going to be career teachers, that gives them some optimism that they value me,” she said.

Gail Reed, teacher at Crab Orchard Elementary, said the school system had an investment in teachers with years of service. 

“I applaud you for saying longevity needs to be rewarded,” she said.

Reed is in her 47th year of teaching.

“It wasn’t money,” she said of her career. “You feel sad when you hear a teacher say their brother moved to Georgia and started working there. With 15 year’s experience, he started out at $65,000.”

The school system must also set its salary schedule by the state’s minimum salary, which sets the minimum salary for new teachers and at years 5 and 11 and, for advanced degrees at years 1, 5 and 11.

Timson said, “Right now, you do not see a pay raise much past year 20.”

Cumberland County High School teacher Michael DiBiccaro said his step increase for his 18th year of teaching comes to $12 for the year. Next year, he would get $1,000.

Timson said, “It’s something that’s happened over many, many years that it’s gotten so out of balance. I would just like to see us work toward fixing it.”

The teams also agree to require schools to provide teachers with a microwave and refrigerator in their teacher breakrooms, ensuring those are convenient to teachers to use during their lunch breaks.

The teams will reconvene May 11 at 4:30 p.m. At that time, school administrators hope to have information from the state on funding.

Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.

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