Governor eliminates COVID-19 teacher bonus; BOE hopes to revisit bonuses in the fall

The Hawkins Co. BOE met in a special-called meeting on June 11 to make some slight changes to their budget after Governor Bill Lee cut a planned teacher pay increase from 4% to 2% and then down to zero in his emergency COVID-19 budget.

However, Director of Schools Matt Hixson told the board that he hopes to the system can reevaluate their financial situation in October and possibly offer a teacher bonus at that time.

Why no bonus?

“We’re here this afternoon due to the Governor of Tennessee reacting to a shortfall of money coming into the state government,” Hixson told the board. “It’s not necessarily Governor Lee’s fault, but we are here as a reaction to us not receiving 2% towards BEP that we had been promised in the revised governor’s budget earlier this year. The board did direct us to figure in a 2% raise for all employees, and that was passed a week ago today (at the regularly scheduled board meeting.”

Though the raise was passed at the BOE’s June 4 meeting, the Governor removed the 2% in the state budget the following Friday, June 5.

“Word is that each state department is being asked to cut as much as 12% at the state level, and that is going to trickle down,” Hixson added. “As tough as this is to talk about and the implications that it has for all Hawkins Co. employees, it is a very smart, proactive move to take.”

Hixson asked the board to call the special-called meeting to approve the revised budget before it was presented to the County Commission.

“We have heard you”

Hixson went on to add, “I want to make it very clear to our Hawkins Co. employees that we greatly value each and every one of you. We have heard you that we do need to do something with salaries. We have good benefit packages here in the county, and we continue to do so, but our salaries do need attention.”

In fact, the county system’s “uncompetitive salaries” were one of the major findings noted within the system-wide cost analysis study that Dr. Keith Brewer put together for the system several months ago.

The study states that “The Hawkins County School District (HCSD) is losing teachers due to an uncompetitive salary schedule.”

In fact, the study reports that, of all contiguous school districts, Hawkins teachers’ salaries consistently surpass Claiborne County but are lower than that of the following districts: Grainger, Hamblen, Greene, Greeneville City, Sullivan, Bristol City, Johnson City Kingsport City, Washington, and Rogersville City.

“The Hawkins County school district routinely loses teachers to other county school districts due to an increase in pay,” reads the report.

Hixson told the BOE on June 11, “Therefore, I will state that we are willing to—if the board takes action today—that we would look at the actual figures coming in for 2019-2020 in October, as that’s usually when we know the ‘actuals’ from the year prior. If we look at those, and we’re able to do something—even if it’s just a 1% bonus for this year to help our employees out—we are more than willing to look at that, and I would present that as a recommendation.”

Talking numbers

Finance Director Melissa Farmer told the BOE that, by taking away the 2% to the system’s BEP (Basic Education Program) allocation, the system will lose $425,000 in revenue from the state. By removing the 2% salary increase, the system reduced their general-purpose fund budget by over $872,000, as around half of that came from BEP and the rest came from local funds.

She noted that this means around a $447,000 difference in what would be taken from the undesignated fund balance. Thus, the system is projected to take $4,271,895 from the fund balance to balance the budget.

She also noted that, if the system decides to provide a teacher bonus in October, those funds would be taken from the undesignated fund balance.

All system employees will still be receiving their regular step increases as they move up the system’s pay scale.

The only other employee salary increase that was left in the budget was the $2.50 per hour increase to bus driver pay as part of an ongoing program.

She also noted that several positions have been eliminated due to attrition that will not be replaced.

Potential teacher bonus this fall Hixson noted that, should the 2% salary increase have gone through, this would have become the new base for teacher pay rather than being a one-time thing.

Since the system will be receiving less money from the state, he went on to add that he recommends looking into a one-time bonus in October “because it provides something for our employees, but it doesn’t lock us down for long-term, ongoing salary costs until we know where the state is financially.”

BOE member Judy Trent asked whether the system could factor a 1% increase into the budget, since half of the aforementioned 2% would have been coming from local funds.

“I think that’s why we need to wait and see when our actuals come in and see what our fund balance is,” Farmer replied.

She noted that she has yet to receive June’s revenues.

“I’d hate to give something and then have to take it back,” Hixson added. “I’d rather look at the realistic picture (in October).”

In the end, the BOE voted 6-0, with Bob Larkins abstaining, to accepted Hixson’s recommendation to look at revenues in October and potentially give a one-time bonus at that time.