Despite raises, educators still face financial struggles

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James Galbraith, a Lake Travis ISD special education aide, said he is used to working more than one job.

He works for the school district during the day, and holds down a night job closer to where he lives in Austin.

“I manage and wait tables at a local Austin restaurant about 20-30 hours per week,” he said. “I’ve always worked a lot, so it’s not a big deal, but it does tend to wear you down.”

Galbraith, who has been an LTISD special education aide for the last four years, said educators within his district can find themselves taking extra measures to make ends meet—including enduring long commutes and working second jobs.

He estimated about 80% of the aides he works with require an additional income or help from a second job.

House Bill 3

Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 3 into law June 11. Passed by the 2019 Texas Legislature, it is legislation allocating $6.5 billion to Texas public schools, according to the Texas Education Agency. 

Per HB 3 guidelines, Central Texas school districts have implemented raises upwards of 4% for the 2019-20 school year. LTISD and Eanes ISD are among the districts that have doled out pay increases.

Referred to as a historic bill by the TEA, HB 3 mandates minimum salary hikes based on basic allotment increases for teachers, counselors, librarians and nurses—referred to as TCLNs—who have at least five years experience.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick described compensation increases as high as $5,000 per employee for the 2019-20 school year when discussing increases mandated by HB 3 during the 86th state legislative session. However, most Central Texas districts were not able to deliver those numbers, according to EISD Superintendent Tom Leonard.

Districts made different decisions on how to implement raises, with Austin ISD and LTISD giving varying percentages to different groups of employees, according to Leonard.

“Neither group gave $5,000 per employee, so forget that. That was fiction,” Leonard said.

The HB 3-mandated minimum increase for EISD veteran TCLNs would total 0.08% for 2019-20, according to Chief Financial Officer Chris Scott.

The EISD board of trustees ultimately decided on a 4.5% raise for all staff members as opposed to the required 0.08% for only TCLNs with at least five years of experience.

“We gave a lot more than what the state gave us, and that came from our fund balance,” Leonard said.

Laura Hitt has taught at EISD for nine years, and said teachers in the district were hoping the board would decide on a full 5% increase.

“When we heard the 4.5% [figure], we were a little disappointed because it’s not that big of a difference,” Hitt said, “But, we’re happy that we’re getting it and it’s still something that will be appreciated.” 

Leonard said raises were higher within other districts, such as AISD, creating more competition with regard to hiring teachers.

“For districts such as ours, we have high socioeconomics and we’re not growing, so we got a lot less money,” Leonard said, adding, AISD approved a 6% raise for all district employees and a 7% raise for veteran TCLNs.

Funding gained in districts through HB 3 was determined by a number of factors, including a district’s size, its managing and operating tax rate and local revenue, according to the TEA.

LTISD approved a raise of 5.3% for the 2019-20 school year, effectively doubling the $1,462 per-employee raise that was required through HB 3, according to Marco Alvarado, LTISD Director of Communications.

Though the raises given out by districts in western Travis County may not have been ideal for teachers hoping for more money, LTISD Assistant Superintendent of Business Johnny Hill said the new law is ultimately a positive piece of legislation. 

“I will say this, HB 3 was extremely successful,” Hill said adding, “LTISD gave the biggest raise since I’ve been here and I consider it to be a successful year for our staff.”

Evalene Murphy, LTISD Superintendent for Human Resource Services said the last time the district saw a wage increase higher than 5.3% was during the 2006-07 school year.

Cost of living

Though many teachers in Central Texas will see salary increases for the 2019-20 school year, Leonard said increases in cost-of-living expenses remain a concern for both teachers and administrators.

As an example, Leonard said a teacher who began at EISD 10 years ago and received a 2% average raise annually would actually see a 1% decrease once figures are adjusted to include increases in the cost of living.

If you just looked at the salary, it went up very slightly, but when we factored in great health insurance increases as well as the consumer price index, they actually go down about 1% per year,” Leonard said. “How does anyone start any job and make 1% less a year?”

Hitt said she has experience with health insurance cost increases firsthand, saying that this year’s medical bills have “eaten up” her salary. “You still have these huge bills that are coming in all the time.” Hitt said.

The median home price in Westlake is roughly $1.1 million, according to Scott. Consequently, most EISD staff members commute from outside districts—usually from Round Rock, Dripping Springs and Austin, he said.

Chief Human Resources Officer Laurie Lee confirmed 88% of EISD employees live outside of the district, and Leonard said despite what he describes as a low turnover rate, employees who decide to leave often cite commute time as the reason.

“That’s why they’re telling us they’re leaving, and that’s a hard one,” Leonard said.

Cost to commute

Leonard said increases in heavy traffic have piled onto drive times, and despite employees saying they enjoy the work, some have begun to leave the district in search of easier commutes.

54.9% of participating EISD employees said they spend between 30 minutes and one hour or greater in traffic daily, according to the district’s 2018 climate survey.

Surveys are distributed to staff by the district in order to gauge employee perceptions of their work environments, according to Claudia McWhorter, executive director of communication and community engagement for EISD.

Galbraith said he lives in Austin because he was not able to find roommates at a home closer to LTISD. He said his daily commute can take around 45 minutes, depending on traffic.

Before eventually deciding to move into the district, Hitt and her husband commuted to EISD for four years.

“Although we have a higher quality of life because we’re not driving all the time, it was an expensive move,” she said.

According to Leonard, community plays a large role in the teacher-retention rate at EISD. The Eanes Education Foundation provides financial support to the district through community donation, and the largest portion of that money goes toward funding teacher positions.

Fifty positions will be funded by the EEF in 2019-20, according to the foundation’s website.

“I know there are times when we’re offering a job to a teacher [who’s] being offered jobs in a couple of other areas, and they come to us,” said Leonard, adding teachers decide to work at EISD because of the community support.

Special Education Aides

Special education aides were not included in the group of school district employees granted wage increases as part of HB 3, so districts were not required to implement raises for those positions.

In LTISD, special education aides received a salary adjustment equal to 4% of their midpoint pay range.

That increase was not commensurate with the wage increases many in that position wanted, as evidenced by a contingent of special education aides who approached the board of trustees in July to ask for a $20 an hour minimum.

“The increases they were asking for [are]equal [to]a 30% raise,” Murphy said, adding the minimum salary for Level 2 special education aides begins at $15.16 an hour, which is the highest rate paid when compared to neighboring districts.

Galbraith was one of the aides who requested a $20 an hour minimum.

“If anything, I think [$20 an hour] would mean we wouldn’t be shorthanded,” he said.

Turnover rates have a strong impact on kids, according to Galbraith, adding kids within the special education program struggle to adapt to a changing learning environment.

Galbraith said in his estimation, LTISD has always managed to stay in compliance with the state’s special education requirements, even when the district has been shorthanded, but this has often meant employees occasionally have to skip lunch or stay late.

LTISD does not track turnover rates for staff, according to Alavarado.

Galbraith said if everyone in the district had the opportunity to work a job that they loved at a more reasonable wage that it would make a huge difference for both the employees and students. 

Despite his financial struggles, Galbraith said he loves that LTISD has given him the opportunity to work with kids every day. He said he has spent over 4,000 hours with his assigned student.

“Whether I get this raise or not, I’m still going to go back,” he said.

Fair compensation for staff is important to EISD, according to Leonard, who added he believes there needs to be a change in public school funding.

“Teachers, whether they’re in Eanes, Lake Travis ISD, Austin ISD or Dallas, are going to have a problem if we don’t change the funding mechanism,” Leonard said, adding, “If there’s a problem with public education being able to do its job, then there’s going to be a problem in our society.”

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