Southern York school district approves wage freeze in lieu of tax increase

Southern York County School District elementary school teachers decorate their cars as they formed a vehicle caravan and drove through the area to wave to students. School's have been closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Bill Kalina photo

The Southern York County school board on Thursday approved a voluntary wage freeze for many district employees to avoid a tax increase in its 2020-21 budget.

Teachers, nurses, librarians and psychologists, salaried staff in technology and human resources, the transportation coordinator and administrators agreed to a one-year freeze  in an effort to ward off budgetary shortfalls due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Hourly workers were not included in the agreement.

The one-year pay freeze was included in the district's $58.6 million preliminary budget, which the school board approved unanimously.

The board separately approved a revised employment contract with its education association — also unanimously — to reflect the freeze.

Under the contract, employees will essentially push back their salary step increases by one year. The 3-year contract was extended to four years, and the formerly agreed-upon yearly increases of 2.32% were pushed back until after  2020-21.

District officials were still working on salary agreements for athletic and co-curricular employees when the original contract was signed, so they were able to add them into the revised contract — with a freeze for the first year and 2% increase each year after.

The revised contract was approved by the Southern York County Education Association in an earlier vote.

"It’s never easy to go back and change these," said Lauri Lebo, spokeswomen for the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

Every school district and local association is different and not always in a position to renegotiate, she said. Southern's update was possible in part because it had just settled its early bird contract in November.

The association also had a good working relationship with administration, and the guarantee of no furloughs or layoffs for the first year of the renegotiated contract was a factor, Lebo said.

The revised contract will be effective July 1, 2020, to June 1, 2024.

As of March 10, the district had planned on a tax increase — two days before the first school closures were announced to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“At that time, we were very aware of how important and how big those changes were to our community,” said Chief Financial and Operations Officer Susan Green.

Since then, schools across the state have been mandated by the governor to close through the end of the school year, and with rising unemployment, district officials knew they didn’t want to add a tax increase on top of that, she said.

But with projected local revenue and interest losses of $1.36 million in the district, officials had to find ways to reduce expenditures, including the wage freeze.

The district had no tax increase for 2019-20, and there is no increase in next year's proposed budget.

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It starts at the top, said board President Robert Schefter, noting that Superintendent Sandy Lemmon came to him early on about a wage freeze for administration.

"That's where it starts because if the administration doesn't even agree to it, how can they ask the teachers and the professional staff to agree to it?" he said.

“This is what leadership looks like throughout an organization — everyone looking out for one another,” said board member Deborah Kalina.

Southern York County School District Superintendent Sandra Lemmon introduces students who are presenting books to school board members at the board's Thursday, Jan. 16 meeting.

In addition to freezing wages, the district had to make other sacrifices to balance the budget — such as postponing hires for long-vacant positions that had been cut in the years following the Great Recession of 2008.

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Southern will have 228 professional staff next year, compared with 256 in 2009-10.

District officials had also wanted to increase building budgets that were “cut drastically” in 2010-11, and Schefter noted that these things are not simply add-ons, but necessities that will need to be brought back in the future.

Green said the district would also use $1.5 million of its fund balance — a typical amount  to use in one year — and forgo a millage increase to fund its debt service.

The final budget is scheduled for a vote in May.