Benton School Board began a special meeting Monday night by voting unanimously to rescind a previous vote regarding a teacher salary proposal that had not been presented to the district's Personnel Policies Committee as required by state law. The earlier vote would have put in place the administration's salary proposal for teachers, which the board had discussed in an illegal executive session before voting on the issue.
Following apologies from Superintendent Jeff Collum and board president Brad Bohannan, the board agreed to reopen the salary discussion with representatives of the PPC, a panel composed of teachers and administrators.
After listening to Collum's comments and teacher Tamme Adams' review of recent events regarding the salary controversy, the two groups came to a mutual decision to start the process over.
The PPC salary proposal — which teachers had anticipated would receive school board approval — had been presented to the board following a survey among employees. That poll revealed that 62 percent favored a salary option that added $500 to the base of each employee's salary plus an additional incremental $74 based on experience.
Collum's proposed salary scale had been noted in a PowerPoint presentation for the PPC, but had not been outlined in a formal proposal. It included a chart showing a comparative salary ranking of Benton with several other districts. Based on the urging of the board, he said he had proposed an across-the-board $1,400 increase at the base for all teachers in order to make Benton's starting salaries tops in the area.
School districts used in the comparison were Bauxite, Bryant and Lake Hamilton.
After all the discussion concluded Monday night, both groups were amenable to conducting a new survey among teachers. The survey asks the teachers to note their preference for one of two proposals — the PPC proposal adding $500 at the base and the additional amount based on experience and the administration's $1,400 increase at the base.
In a PPC meeting that immediately followed the board session, the PPC instructed Sherri Fite, the district's technology director, to send out the survey immediately. Results are expected at the close of the school day Wednesday. At that time, the proposal that receives the most votes will become the new salary scale once it has received official approval from the board.
Collum told the group that "whatever option is chosen is fine with me." He agreed to call a special board meeting as soon as the board members can meet on the matter.
PPC members agreed to that plan and expressed appreciation to Collum and the school board members for acknowledging the previous error and for being willing to reopen the process.
Collum made no excuses for his error, calling the past few days "a rough week" resulting from "misunderstanding on my part," but never backing down from acknowledging his mistake.
He said he had been guided by the board to address what they perceived as a disparity in salaries of among teachers in the region and he had determined that adding the larger amount to the base would benefit more employees.
The PPC's views were presented by Adams, who noted at the start that the PPC learned in September that because of increased enrollment, the district would be able to give a 3 percent raise to teachers.
At the PPC meeting where that information was shared by Collum, several PPC members voiced the opinion that they believed it would be better overall for the district and individual teachers to place more on increments for experience.
After Collum left the PPC meeting, the committee voted to present two salary options to the faculty for a vote. Option A added $1,000 to the base and $35 to experience increments; Option B added $500 to the base and $74 to experience increments.
When the survey results were returned, Option B had passed with 63.2 percent approval by licensed staff. The PPC in turn received an email from co-chair Amy Vrana, who stated that Mary Morgan, assistant superintendent of personnel (who serves on PPC), would be presenting Option B to the board for approval.
Adams noted that the PPC had considered which plan would have the "biggest impact on the classroom."
"Experience allows for teachers to improve in three main areas, having a positive impact on curriculum design, teaching strategies and development of effective assessment tools," she said.
Adams explained that the PPC had requested Monday's special board meeting to reconsider the board's vote taken on Oct. 14.
"Some board members publicly expressed surprise at what they described as the 'drama' and 'negative reaction to a pay raise,'" she said.
Adams discounted this interpretation of the issue.
"Teachers are professionals asking for input in personnel policy," she said. "Teachers expressed dismay that the board failed to pass a proposed salary proposal that had received 63 percent support by teachers."
She emphatically denied that teachers were not reacting negatively to a pay raise. "They expressed dismay at what was seen as a lack of transparency in the manner the proposed policy was passed and the fact that state law was violated."
Specifically, three actions were questioned, she said. Those were:
•PPC was notified by email from the co-chairman that Morgan would be presenting the PPC salary proposal, Option B, to the school board. No mention was made that the administration also would be presenting an alternate salary proposal.
•Option A as presented by the administration was not included on the official board meeting agenda as posted for the public on eBoard Solutions.
•FOI laws were violated by discussing the proposal in executive session.
"All three of these are legitimate concerns that were expressed to PPC representatives by teachers in the buildings we represent," Adams added.