Direct deposit snag riles teachers' union

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   The Elizabethton Board of Education's meeting opened with sounds of joyous holiday cheer in the Mack Pierce Board Room Tuesday night. Then, the meeting started.
   After students from T.A. Dugger Junior High School regaled meeting attendees with Christmas carols, board members heard concerns of two city teachers' union representatives and one system principal regarding salaries and appreciation of Elizabethton City Schools' personnel.
   The Elizabethton Education Association, which represents the system's faculty and professional personnel, has filed a grievance regarding a problem with direct deposit of their payroll checks. Tina Parlier, a teacher at Elizabethton High School, told the board a snafu regarding payroll checks posted by direct deposit for faculty and staff during the mid-November pay period resulted in teachers' checks deposited late.
   A member of the EEA negotiations team, Parlier said system personnel members panicked when they learned their paychecks had not been posted on the pay date. "If you could get to the bank, you could get your money," Parlier told the board. However, she said several personnel were either hospitalized or out of town and unable to get any funds.
   Professional employees are paid once per month while paraprofessionals such as teacher's assistants are paid twice each month. A poll of ECS faculty and staff at the system's five schools found a slim majority of 115 to 109 want to return to payment by check. Five teachers wanted a choice for either direct deposit or payment, according to the survey.
   Parlier said the EEA filed a grievance with the management board and with interim superintendent, Richard Culver, requesting the choice of direct deposit be left to personnel rather than being mandatory. Parlier said Culver refused the request, prompting the union to bring the grievance directly to the board.
   Despite the problems, Parlier said the ECS finance department explained the problem to the banks it uses. The department asked banks to consider the problem before assessing overdraft or late fees against teachers.
   "We are all sorry this happened, but we are all human," said Dr. Bob Sams, board chairman.
   Sam Greenwell, also a teacher at EHS and the EEA's chief negotiator, laid out several issues teachers want the board and administrators to address in 2004. The Board of Education voted to include a 1.5 percent increase in salary and step pay increase for faculty and staff after the Elizabethton Education Association submitted a request for a 5 percent raise - a figure Greenwell acknowledged as a "pie in the sky" request.
   However, he said the system's rank and file hoped the board would appropriate a larger amount for faculty, staff and school administrators. He also agreed with Parlier that system employees should have a choice on whether they want direct deposit or payment by check.
   Greenwell also said teachers and staff want a role in the annual evaluation for the director of schools. "A person who works for someone is more likely to have an honest, open opinion about them rather than a bystander," he said.
   At the end of his presentation, Greenwell announced he is stepping down as chief negotiator with the EEA.
   "I'm tired of talking," said Greenwell, who has been a teacher for 32 years. "It is time for some action."
   Elizabethton High School Principal Edwin Alexander also railed against the board regarding the salary of incoming superintendent, Dr. David Roper, in contrast to the salaries of the system's faculty members.
   Roper's salary includes $83,000 base salary and benefits including health insurance, performance step pay and business expense allowance totaling $96,000. As a system employee, Roper will pick up additional compensation through retirement benefits paid through the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System, social security and Medicare employer tax deferments, and additional health insurance for an approximate $12,800 additionally - bringing his salary to a total of $108,651, according to a line-item salary package obtained by the Star.
   "This salary alone is ... in excess of $60,000 more than what the average classroom teacher makes," Alexander said. "It is an insult to every educator and citizen in Elizabethton." Alexander stressed the need for better pay for teachers and staff who had been in the system for a number of years. He also singled out ECS Director of Finance, Cynthia Roberts, for her work
   Board members conducted a public meeting with Roper on Sunday, but held the meeting in Nashville during a state school board workshop rather than in Elizabethton.
   Alexander said the board's decision to negotiate with Roper in Nashville and term it a public meeting was "just absurd." He also called the board's decision to vote on Roper's contract at a called meeting that lacked the opportunity for public comment "insidious and, at best, dubious."
   Roper is expected to leave his current position as superintendent of Roanoke City Schools in Roanoke, Ala., where he has been since 1999, to take the job in January. Roper will become the system's fourth superintendent since 2000 following Dr. Jessie Strickland, Dr. Dale Lynch, and Dr. Judy Blevins.