Grapevine-Colleyville ISD employees received welcome news earlier this summer when trustees approved their first raises since 2009. Now, with the help of a 7-0 vote last week, those paychecks will be getting an even larger bump.

After battling through yet another tough budget year for the district, GCISD received a major surprise in May: $9.7 million in royalties and real estate leases on flood control property around Lake Grapevine. In deciding how best to use the money, trustees considered a number of options, but ultimately they voted to designate $2.5 million for future projects related to the district's new 10-year strategic plan, LEAD 2021, and give the rest back to employees who have been hurting for years.

"This is such good news," Superintendent Robin Ryan said. "We have been wanting to compensate our employees and haven't been able to because of cuts and funding...we feel like we've been very thoughtful and deliberate and fair in coming up with a way to pass this along to our employees."

GCISD is not the only area school district to receive the royalty and lease payments that come from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Minerals and Management Services on property around the lake. But like other districts, it has no way of knowing what the payment will be from year to year. Ryan said the district has received unexpected money from that source for a number of years now, but the highest it has ever been before this year was $1.2 million.

"We've never been able to count on it, we've never been able to budget for it," Ryan said, "and when we talk to colleagues in the Comptroller's Office, they say they can't plan for it either."

The initial reaction of some was to put the whole $9.7 million in fund balance, Ryan said, especially after the district dipped into its rainy day fund to plug a $6.4 million budget shortfall this year. But trustees couldn't pass up the opportunity to finally reward employees.

"Over the last few years we've been fortunate enough to add to fund balance and prepare for this rainy day," Ryan said. "I don't think it would have been the right thing to do for us to have people behind the market...and we have unexpected revenue and we put it in the bank."

When district officials get into the nitty gritty of a compensation analysis they conducted while considering these raises, the picture becomes more clear.

"Legislative cuts from the last session cut $14 million over two years [for GCISD], and in anticipation of that in prior years as well as with the funding formula the way it was rewritten in 2006, we have not been able to offer our employees additional compensation for years now," Ryan said. "On top of that, we've had several increases in expenses like health insurance."

The district was already behind the market in terms of compensation when it instituted a salary freeze in 2009 to help weather the financial crisis, and since other area districts have continued offering their employees small raises over the past few years, GCISD workers are now among the lowest paid in Dallas-Fort Worth area. Those compensation problems have begun to hurt the district's ability to retain employees, Ryan said, and GICSD has lost "top talent at all levels" in recent years as skilled and tenured professionals left for higher-paying jobs.

As part of the recently approved plan, every employee (except Ryan) will get a small raise based on a market analysis of 21 area school districts' compensation. Those raises will only account for $1.2 million this year, though; the additional $6 million will be doled out — $1.2 million at a time — on the next five budgets to begin sustaining these raises without impacting operating costs.

The goal in looking at the analysis was to raise salaries closer to the median within each employee group, and to get the district among the top 10 in terms of compensation, particularly in the area of teaching salaries. For some worker categories, that means a market adjustment of only .75 percent, the smallest possible raise that GCISD employees will receive from the latest vote. For others who are far behind market levels, the adjustment is as high as 12 or 13 percent.

"We have people in this district paid woefully behind the market," Ryan explained. "Traditionally in this district, it's been across-the-board [raises], but that would not have addressed the disparities that exist for people who are much lower compared to our colleagues across the Metroplex."

The bulk of the money, at 57.2 percent or $732,779 this year, is going to teachers. But as a whole, GCISD teachers have fared better than their colleagues in terms of competitive compensation. Some of the employees who will see the largest percentage jumps in their salaries work in central administration, where salary averages do not even hit the market's 25th percentile. With the highest percentage jumps, the central administration portion of the raises amounts to only $211,000.

"That really tells you how far behind we are," Ryan said.

District Chief Financial Officer Paula Barbaroux pointed out, too, that the district conducted its analysis based on 2011 compensation. As other area districts approved small raises over the summer, she and the rest of district leadership hope to simply hold onto a top-10 spot when all is said and done.

The raises will come in addition to the 1 percent raises approved by trustees in June and the 1 percent, one-time bonuses that employees are set to receive if the district's 2011-12 expenditures close out at 3 percent less than budgeted.

"The proposed plan allow the district to maintain student programs, protect fund balance and, most importantly, address compensation without any additional costs to community taxpayers," reads a summary given to trustees before their vote. "Although sharing the good fortune of the federal flood control payment does not place GCISD on level with peer districts...we believe employees will appreciate the district's efforts and that the community will benefit."