Custodians, secretaries, bookkeepers, teaching assistants and other Loudoun County Public Schools staff members say it’s time for a raise.
Many of the school system’s classified employees—defined as those who do not have a teaching license—are working with the Loudoun Education Association to launch a campaign to formally ask school and county leaders to consider improving their compensation during next year’s budget deliberations.
“The goal is to highlight how badly these folks are paid and bring an awareness to it,” said David Palanzi, president of the Loudoun Education Association. “Many of these employees’ pay is low enough to qualify for social services. So why don’t we just pay them better up front and keep their dignity intact.”
Several school employees are planning to deliver that message to members of the School Board at their meeting this evening.
The campaign, called A Push for Living Wage, comes less than a month before Superintendent Eric Williams will unveil the operating budget he’s recommending for the school system’s next fiscal year. He has not said whether it will include pay raises for classified employees.
The Loudoun Education Association is an employee advocate group with about 3,400 members; 604 of those are classified employees.
Palanzi said the general public often only thinks about advocating for improving teachers’ pay, which is important, but there are thousands of other support staff members who are paid much less.
A living wage calculator created by MIT estimates that the salary needed to cover the cost of one adult with one child living in Loudoun is $59,005. “That’s just for the basics, not going out to eat or any extras,” Palanzi said.
The salary for most classified positions is less than $40,000, and for many, it’s less than $30,000. An entry-level custodian makes $24,872 working 254 days, 12 months a year. Starting pay for a teaching assistant contracted to work 184 days over nine months is $19,999; at most, a teaching assistant can make $46,716 after 28 years of experience.
“I always knew they were paid poorly, but I didn’t realize just how bad. But when you see the numbers in front of you, you see why it’s so hard for them to afford to live in Loudoun County,” Palanzi said. “That’s what I want people to know.”
Karen McCall works two jobs to cover her mortgage on her home in Lovettsville and help pay for her children’s college tuition. She’s worked as a health clinic specialist at Lovettsville Elementary for 14 years and, on weekends and some evenings, she works as a hospice nurse.
“Thankfully I have my [nursing] license so I can do a second job that pays OK,” she said. The school system pays her $33,000 per year. “If you subtract how much I pay for insurance, I make $28,634. … I love it here, but it’s super hard to maintain what little bit we have.”
On the job at Lovettsville Elementary, she’s responsible for students who have diabetes, severe allergies, and others on medication that needs to be carefully administered. In the past few months, she’s twice injected students experiencing anaphylactic shock with epinephrine.
“If I wasn’t here, the kids could have died,” McCall said. “The responsibility is there but the pay isn’t there at all.”
Tammy Zukowski took a job as a teacher’s assistant at Woodgrove High School six years ago because the hours were great for a mom with two kids. She’s usually home by 4:30 p.m. each day and her days off align with the students’ days off.
“I absolutely love my job and I love the people that I work with,” she said. She makes $21,484 each year, plus a little extra when she helps out with summer school and to administer SAT and ACT exams on weekends. “I just wish there was more than the benefits,” Zukowski said, referring to employees’ health benefits. “We are worth more. If I were working in Fairfax, I would be making $6,000 more a year.”
McCall is suggesting school leaders adopt some type of merit pay. “So people who do really well are rewarded for their job. The employees that do a good job I feel should be paid a living wage.”
School Board member Tom Marshall (Leesburg), who chairs the board’s Human Resources and Talent Development Committee, said he’s open to supporting raises for classified employees, but he wants to first see what new expenses the schools will be facing next fiscal year before committing. He noted that the staffing the new Academies of Loudoun alone will be costly.
“Generally, I would be in favor of it, but I haven’t seen the budget constraints yet,” Marshall said. “I want to wait and see what the impact of what the staffing of the Academies of Loudoun has on the budget.”
The School Board will begin its work on next year’s operating budget in January, and is scheduled to adopt a spending plan Feb. 1. From there, the budget document is sent to the county Board of Supervisors, which sets the tax rate, as a formal funding request. So the LEA and the classified employees also plan to approach supervisors with their request for a pay raise.
The last time classified employees’ pay scale was adjusted was fiscal year 2015; they saw a raise of 2.9 percent. In fiscal years 2016, 2017 and 2018, the current fiscal year, each classified employee moved up one step on the pay scale. For McCall, the health clinic specialist, that equated to 34 cents per hour, or about $500 more for the year.