School board divided on raises

Balto. Co. ponders increasing wages for lowest-paid

February 25, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,Sun Reporter

Patricia McQueen takes satisfaction in knowing that every emptied trash can, dust-free desktop and spotless hallway contributes in its own way to a child's education.

"If it weren't for the custodians doing what we do, no one would want to come in here. Even the Health Department would shut it down," said McQueen, 49, a building services worker at Cedarmere Elementary School in Reisterstown. "We make it possible for teachers to do what they do."

After nearly 15 years with the Baltimore County school system, McQueen earns $13.40 an hour, but she says she wouldn't be able to get by on the current starting wage of $9.37 an hour. And now a move by some school board members to give a raise to the system's lowest-paid employees has stymied the normally routine budget approval process.

Board members failed last week to approve an operating budget for the coming school year because they couldn't agree on a proposal to boost the hourly minimum wage to $10 for all employees. They are expected to vote again this week.

Some board members balked at the price tag given for the salary increase, but others said the raise is the least they can do.

"Ten dollars is certainly not a livable wage, and most of the people in this scale do not even receive benefits with that wage," board member H. Edward Parker said during the board's meeting Tuesday night.

But board member JoAnn C. Murphy said $20 million is too steep a price to pay to raise the school system's minimum salary.

The school board's debate mirrors the continuing national discussion on acceptable wages for the lowest-paid workers, said Robert Pollin, director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

"Yes, $20 million is a lot of money, but if people believe in a concept of some minimally reasonable pay, they have to be willing to pay," said Pollin, an economics professor and co-author of The Living Wage: Building a Fair Economy. "It's all about establishing some decent standards for people who are making a contribution to society and the economy."

He said that while a $10 minimum is considered reasonable as a national average, workers in more expensive areas of the country, such as the Baltimore region, need more to subsist.

Parker said board members should consider cutting elsewhere to provide the wage increase.

"Just now to tack this $20 million on and say we can't afford it is not the way it should go," he said.

The lowest-paid employees in the school system are personal assistants, bus attendants and custodians, according to Lora Williams, president of Local 434 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents all but the personal assistants. The average starting pay is $8.66 an hour for bus attendants, who assist children with special needs, disabilities or behavioral issues, and compile reports, Williams said.

"A lot of these people are really struggling to meet the minimum needs such as housing," Williams said. "Many of them have to work two full-time jobs."

AFSCME represents about 900 custodians and 150 bus attendants who work in Baltimore County schools, she said. Custodians are year-round employees and earn an average of $18,740 annually. The system's bus attendants are 10-month employees who earn an average of $13,856 each year, Williams said.

Statewide, the average starting hourly wage for school custodians ranges from $10.82 to $14, and bus attendants average starting pay of $11.77, she said.

McQueen has worked at Cedarmere Elementary for four years. Before that, she was at Old Court Middle School in Pikesville for 10 years. She shares custodial duties with Renna Hardy, 56, who has worked at the school for 26 years. Hardy, who earns $14.71 an hour, and McQueen work the 3:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. shift.

"We're doing a lot of work," Hardy said. "But the money doesn't match the duties."

Custodians are working harder because of the increasing number of after-school and weekend programs that keep children in the buildings longer and schools open later, Williams said. In addition, custodians must maintain training to keep up with new equipment and maintenance approaches, she said.

During last week's board meeting, member Warren C. Hayman said the board should seek money to raise wages and leave it up to the county to decide whether to fund the wage increases.

"When the rubber hits the road, [the workers are] not going to come back and look at the county. They're going to come back and look at this board and say, `You really don't care about us,' and I think that's a bad message to send to any employee who is not receiving benefits," Hayman said. "We need to think very strongly about the message we're sending to the least of these, the employees who get the least amount of money, get the least amount of benefits,"

Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's original proposed budget of $1.16 billion, which was presented to school board members last month, included enough money to support a 10 percent increase that would raise the minimum wage from $8.40 to $9.20 for personal assistants, paid helpers and kindergarten classroom assistants.

When board members met Tuesday, they weighed two revised versions of the proposed operating budget: a $1.19 billion plan that includes the $20 million to raise the minimum hourly wage, and a plan that doesn't.

Because the school board must submit a proposed operating budget to County Executive James T. Smith Jr. by Thursday, it is expected to vote again at Tuesday's meeting.

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