By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: September 7, 2019 | 1:45 p.m.
DINWIDDIE – This week, thousands of Dinwiddie students have returned to classes to kick off the 2019-2020 school year with a full complement of teachers, counselors, and support staff on hand to greet them as they walk through the county’s schools.
Those men and women are the backbone of Dinwiddie County Public Schools, serving as the vessels that educate the county’s next generation of leaders and, for Superintendent Dr. Kari Weston, retaining quality talent while also working to attract top-quality candidates to the school division for employment is important and at the center of recent efforts to address compensation for teachers and staff.
As part of the current fiscal year budget, roughly $1.4 million in additional spending was earmarked specifically for the area of “Employee Excellence,” which saw teachers receive a pay increase between four to five percent, which she explained was a higher increase than what had been proposed by Governor Ralph Northam at the time as part of his biennial budget, which provides a pay raise for state Standards of Quality-funded positions of five percent over the course of the two year budget.
In addition, the school division also raised its base pay by $1,5000 from $43,000 to $44,500 to continue to address compensation while also aligning the school division with some of its neighboring jurisdictions.
According to data provided by the school division at the time of the budget’s public presentation, the increase in base pay and step increase for teachers resulted in a nearly $1 million increase in spending when compared to prior year’s budget. For non-teaching positions, a similar step increase for those employees carried a price tag of $195,000, bringing the total investment into compensation in the school division’s budget to just under $1.2 million.
In the spring, Weston explained that teacher salaries are “a real issue” in the Commonwealth and during an interview this month, she discussed how Dinwiddie County Public Schools is working to tackle a topic many school divisions and states are facing around the nation.
“We are committed to making certain that our teachers are compensated in a way that is competitive with, not only the state but the nation,” the superintendent said.
According to a report drafted by the National Education Association in 2018, the Commonwealth ranked in the mid-30s in America in 2016 and 2017 in terms of average teacher salaries, with 2017 showing a modest increase of the prior year up to $51,049, which is over $8,600 below the national average of $59,660. A two-to-three hour drive north on Interstate 95 sees Virginia’s neighbors Maryland and the District of Columbia ranking among the top 10 in teacher pay, with Washington D.C. ranking fourth in 2018 with an average teacher salary of nearly $75,700 and Maryland not far behind, placing seventh with an average salary of $68,357.
Dinwiddie Schools’ Carly Woolfolk walks Aaron Johnson through this spring’s Government Day exercise, one of the more unique activities the school division engages in twice yearly and an example of what Superintendent Weston sees as ’state-of-the-art’ activities available for students. (Michael Campbell)
“Virginia has been relatively slow in making certain that our salaries are at that national level,” Weston continued. “I do applaud the recent administration that seems to be much more attentive to that but we still have a long way to go.”
Over the last several years, the school division has adopted a new teacher salary scale, along with a unified pay plan for non-teaching positions, both of which are living scales that are typically re-evaluated every five years to ensure pay remains competitive and is consistent with outlooks and other metrics.
She noted, while salaries and compensation are important aspects of creating and fostering a strong workforce of current employees and attracting new candidates for hire, there are other elements that have to be looked at when talking about staffing as a whole.
“We have been talking a lot this summer about what are some of the unnecessary types of demands that we can take away from teachers, like supplies for their classrooms,” she said. “Teachers spend on average about $500 of their own money to put together a classroom when they start out a school year and that is ridiculous. As employers, our jobs should be to make certain that, not only teachers but students have the supplies they need to do the job we are asking them to do or to learn in the classroom we are asking them to learn in.”
Earlier this month, the school division held its first-ever Back2School Bash events at Southside and Sunnyside elementary schools which, while preparing students for the upcoming year, affording area kids the chance to receive free supplies to start the year off on the right foot and, thanks to the generosity of the community and a wealth of donations received over the summer, many of the unclaimed supplies will be stocked in county schools to be used throughout the year.
Beyond that, Weston said they are looking at the complete teaching experience to evaluate the demands placed on instructors.
“We can also look at other demands, whether it’s meetings or paperwork, so we are always thinking about what we can take off the plates of teachers, what support can we put in place for teachers, what can we do to make this a workplace where they want to work and where they feel like they are part of something bigger,” she said. “Those are the kinds of things that people want to continue to work for and be loyal to a school district or to seek out that school district.”
Weston continued, “When you see teachers on Twitter recently saying, ‘This is why I love working at Dinwiddie County Public Schools.’ I could do all the advertising in the world but to have a teacher speak about how it feels to work in a community like this or how it feels to be part of this team, there is nothing better than that. So we are always trying to seek ways to reduce the demands on them because there are enough of those in being a teacher in general, but to make it a great family-friendly place to work alongside other dedicated, caring people with leaders who are inspiring, fun to be with and smart.”
Supporting the men and women who work in Dinwiddie Schools has been a priority for Weston and the school system’s leadership. One way they have done that is through their Dinwiddie Difference award, which recognizes outstanding employees within DCPS, like Dinwiddie Middle School Special Education Teacher JaVonda Tucker, who was honored in January. (Meredith Baker)
As the story of Dinwiddie Schools continues to be shared by the school division and its employees thanks following the full implementation of its branding study, resulting in a new logo and the “Deep Roots. Great Heights” slogan, its reaching potential employees in the field, something school leaders have seen during their recruitment efforts as candidates scout schools and invest time doing research on different school systems.
“We really recruited this year and had events that we sent [school] administrators to do those events,” DCPS School and Community Relations Director Christie Clarke detailed. “A lot of the young people we interviewed and recruited did their homework before they came to our table. They are checking out your website and your social media. That is huge for young people, so you have to be telling your story because that is a recruiting tool, too. We saw a lot of people who did their homework and wanted to go to the table to talk to the people from Dinwiddie, so that was really good.”
Weston added, with the school division set to be fully accredited for a third-straight year, according to preliminary state data, Dinwiddie Schools’ academic and extra-curricular investments are a draw for candidates and helps the school system stand out in the state’s competitive Region 1, which is made up of several large school division, including Chesterfield, Richmond, and Henrico County, among others.
“There is a bigger draw here centered around our student activities as our children in this community are afforded, I feel, state-of-the-art types of access to academic activities, along with athletics,” she detailed. “It is really fun to be part of that and, during the week, to be out on the field or at a bowl [event] with our children who are competing and you get to stand alongside with other members of the community, it really does unite you in a way that nothing else can and that makes this a special community, as well. Those kinds of things are big draws for a rural community like ours.”