School board adds $5 million to draft budget for further salary enhancements

Jan. 25—The Frederick County Board of Education on Wednesday voted 5-2 to add more than $5 million to its draft spending plan, an attempt to further increase employee salaries.

The decision came after about an hour of impassioned discussion and debate among board members. Some appeared torn between a belief that higher salaries would help ease the staffing demands on a fast-growing school system and a reluctance to inflate an already-tight budget.

Frederick County Public Schools Superintendent Cheryl Dyson's recommended budget for the district — which she unveiled earlier this month — included a $29.3 million pool for salary increases. That would translate to roughly 6% raises for all benefitted FCPS employees.

The board's vote on Wednesday added more than $5.6 million to that pool, which would allow benefited employees to receive 7.14% raises — the same salary increase they received this fiscal year.

State law requires the district to establish a minimum $60,000 starting salary for teachers by 2026. FCPS' current minimum starting salary for teachers is about $52,000, one of the lowest in the state.

But that $60,000 threshold is "the floor, not the ceiling," Dyson said Wednesday.

"Other counties, other systems, they're not going to stick to that floor," board member Karen Yoho said.

The salary debate began on Wednesday when Board Vice President Dean Rose asked Heather Clabaugh, the school system's budget officer, about how meaningful a 6% raise would be.

"Is 6% making us more competitive, treading water, or making us less competitive?" Rose asked.

"At this point, it's treading water," Clabaugh responded. "This is the minimum we need to move us forward toward $60,000."

Dyson said that, when drafting her proposed budget, she originally planned to offer 7.15% raises.

"I wish we had an endless bucket," she said, warning the board that an increase to the salary pool would need to be offset by cuts to other areas of the budget.

Half of the $110.2 million increase Dyson proposed over last year's budget is just to keep pace with inflation and FCPS' enrollment growth, she said.

Her draft budget already had expenditures that outweighed expected revenues by nearly $80 million.

At one point on Wednesday, Board President Sue Johnson made a motion to provide 9% raises. That would have required adding $14.8 million to Dyson's proposed budget.

That motion was later rejected by a majority of board members — including Johnson herself, who said later that she introduced the idea mostly to encourage discussion.

Yoho and Rae Gallagher were the only two on the board to support the 9% raises.

Sue Johnson, Jason Johnson, Yoho, Rose and David Bass ended up supporting the 7.14% raise, while Gallagher and board member Nancy Allen did not.

The board's vote on Wednesday was to finalize the version of the budget it will present to the public at a hearing on Feb. 1.

Historically, budget hearings aren't well attended, Sue Johnson said. She expressed hope that Wednesday's decision would encourage people to come out to give feedback.

"This may be a trigger," she said.

After the public hearing, the board will revisit the budget and take a final vote on the funding request it wants to submit to the county.

Then, once County Executive Jessica Fitzwater unveils her budget this spring, the board will balance the school board's budget.

Follow Jillian Atelsek on Twitter: @jillian_atelsek