EDITORIAL: Now not the time to raise school pay


Trimming the Powell school district’s budget is an unenviable, difficult task that has fallen on the Park County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees. We appreciate the time and thought that they and the district’s leaders have put into finding ways to reduce the budget by hundreds of thousands of dollars without hurting students.

But we would encourage the board to make things easier now — and for years to come — by not approving the roughly $268,000 worth of salary increases that are being considered for the coming 2017-18 fiscal year.

Powell takes pride in its education system — and for good reason. Our schools are full of wonderful teachers, aides and administrators who work hard to serve this community’s children.

If performance was all that needed to be considered in handing out raises this year, we know many staffers are more than deserving.

But, unfortunately, there’s a bottom line to consider.

The potential raises, referred to as steps and lanes, are each valued around $1,100 per year for full-time staffers. That’s not insignificant, but it’s also relatively modest.

The bigger issue, though, is that any increase in salary is an ongoing expense; the district is effectively promising to pay that extra $1,100 a year for however many years the employee is with the district. And frankly, we worry that some employees could end up having fewer years with the district if these raises are approved.

Consider this: Having that extra $268,000 available next year — when much more severe cuts are expected — could mean the difference between keeping and laying off four teachers.

We understand some school board members’ concerns that nixing the steps and lanes could hurt morale. But we think most employees will understand that freezing salaries isn’t some kind of indictment of their work. It’s simply a recognition of the tight times and the statewide funding crisis for K-12 education.

Consider what happened in the private sector that led to the current budget crunch, specifically in the minerals industry that provides the bulk of the funding for Wyoming’s schools.

Oil and natural gas prices plummeted in 2014, leaving roustabouts and others wondering not if they’d be getting a raise, but whether they’d still have a job the next week.

Many were laid off. State economists estimate that, between January 2015 and June 2016, more than 8,600 workers in the minerals industry lost their jobs.

We don’t know how each of those situations played out, but we’re sure the layoffs included many great workers — people who, in good times, would be getting raises rather than being laid off. In the end, employers have to do some cold, hard math.

Things are looking particularly unpleasant next year, as enrollment in Powell’s schools and state funding appear poised to decline. Park County School District No. 1 Superintendent Kevin Mitchell speculated that the district may have to make $1.5 million worth of cuts.

That’s why it seems like a bad idea to approve raises and increase the district’s expenses now.

We know these are not easy decisions — particularly for some of the “lane” increases that were effectively promised a year ago. For teachers who spent the last year finishing their master’s degree and expecting a raise this year, it’d be a pretty bitter pill to learn that the district can’t hold up its end of the deal at this time.

We wouldn’t fault the board for deciding to honor those commitments, but we would warn that, even with thoughtful planning this year, there may be plenty of bitter decisions lying ahead in 2018-19.

Let’s do everything we can to lessen that blow.