As people across America took time to reflect on life’s blessings for another Thanksgiving holiday this week, Rowan-Salisbury Schools superintendent Dr. Tony Watlington had a message of thanks to bestow on the system’s many employees. “We are thankful for each and every teacher in Rowan-Salisbury Schools,” he said. “We’ve known for a long time, based on a lot of research in this country, that the single most important predictor of student learning is a strong classroom teacher.” But for Watlington, these thanks are limited neither to a predetermined season nor to the system’s most visible employees. Watlington rose through the ranks of education from the ground up, starting his career as a bus driver and a custodian, moving onward from there to history teacher and beyond. This, he said, gives him a unique perspective. “I always wake up in the morning and think about being in the same shoes as our custodians, our bus drivers, our teachers, our guidance counselors: all the people who play a role to make the school district work,” he said. “We simply wouldn’t be able to make this school district work without each and every one of these employees.” Accordingly, he said the system’s Board of Education was dedicated to finding ways to support staff at all levels both emotionally and financially.
Superintendent Dr. Tony Watlington stands with North Rowan Middle School principal Jonathan Clark to speak with students on the first school day of 2021-22.
The proclamation falls within a tumultuous season for educators, as classified and noncertified staff across the state lobby both for better pay and for support during a particularly difficult educational season. Extended time away from the school setting has resulted in an influx of students with high needs across both the state and nation, with teachers working double to catch students up on curriculum as well as in their social-emotional growth. Watlington said the problem was far from something regional: “There’s been an uptick in challenges and it’s not just here. My superintendent friends tell me: it’s lots of places.” In an effort to acknowledge and address this pandemic-created, difficult season, the Rowan County Board of Education first adopted a Plan B schedule in August 2020 that included “Wellness Workdays” each Wednesday – a day each week for faculty to be out of the school building working remotely while students completed work digitally. While students entered school for the 2021-22 school year in Plan A, the board has looked for opportunities to provide more, truer opportunities for rest and recuperation. In September, they voted to change two scheduled workdays in mid-October to these “Wellness” opportunities. These days consisted of two days of forgiven time to focus on “self-care and social-emotional wellbeing,” a press release read. Watlington is also quite interested in putting in the legwork to identify the concerns of all the school system’s key players: staff, parents, students, and so on. In January, he’ll be forming a teacher advisory council with an elected representative from each school site. Council members will be his eyes and ears on the ground, he said and will help him keep a pulse on the true, current needs of the district’s 33 schools. District staff and the Board of Education have also been ever-working to provide more financial support to staff at all levels. In June 2021, they provided a one-time bonus of $1,000 for teachers and district staff. Non-certified staff received 6.5% of their annual base salary. Returning teachers at 13 area schools also saw retention bonuses along with their first paycheck of the 2021-22 school year. Moreover, the board approved a surprise $2,000 bonus for each of the district’s 3,000 employees in mid-November, to be paid before the Christmas holiday. But the bonuses, according to Watlington, are not nearly as exciting as the lasting financial change the board is working to bring about in terms of pay. At the same November meeting, board members raised the starting pay of bus drivers from $12.07 per hour to $16.49 – with the top end moving from $15.35 to $25.39.
The significant jump came following the results of a recently completed salary study, said the superintendent. The Board of Education has always been focused on ways to better recruit, support, and retain employees. “Compensation is a challenge for everybody, regardless of the field,” said Dr. Jill Hall-Freeman, the system’s chief human resources officer. “There are so many factors. You have the economy: we’re experiencing inflation like crazy, the cost of living is increasing, and, statewide, salaries are lagging behind.” Therein, the district has been hard at work to find ways to increase salaries with existing resources. It’s also finding ways to implement these changes in ways that can be sustained over time. “Just because you can’t raise all the salaries at one time doesn’t mean that you don’t start somewhere,” Watlington said. Bus drivers were a logical choice for one of the first changes following the study, Watlington said. “Bus drivers who greet students first in the morning—if they feel good and feel supported—they can greet students as soon as they get on the school bus in a way that sets the tone for the day, for everybody,” he said. And the school district is far from done in its quest to continue adjusting salaries to more competitive rates. “Our board is committed to be creative to find ways and revenue to move on to other classified staff salaries as well,” Watlington said. Next on the docket? School nutrition staff—another group critical to keeping area schools running each day and meeting the needs of all who walk through the doors of the school building. Hall-Freeman said the recent passing of the state budget will only help the school system reach these goals more quickly, adding that updated salary schedules and scales will give a more adequate indication of “where we are, where we’re going, and how to get there.” This salary work, along with the institution of new bonuses for all staff members rather than only classroom teachers, reflects how Rowan-Salisbury Schools’ Board of Education is dedicated to supporting employees. “We’re all rowing in the same direction,” she said, indicating that the board was behind district staff 100% when it came to finding ways to realize goals of salary improvement. Watlington agreed. “We’re going to work hard to do all that we can to continue to show that we appreciate all of our employees,” he said, “not just now at Thanksgiving, but all year ‘rround.”