White piggy bank

Higley Unified officials expect a budget for the coming school year that will have an additional $7.8 million in spending power and the district may use some of that to give raises to teachers and staff.

Tyler Moore, the director of finance, laid out the calculations for as much as a 5-percent pay increase for teachers, administrators and classified workers during the governing board meeting last Wednesday. Proposals also included raises of 1 percent and 3 percent.

“District-wide, we are supporting a 5 percent increase to all staff,” Moore said.  “We strongly believe that this compensation will increase the ability to retain staff, maintain competitive salaries, and be more competitive with our neighboring districts in attracting teachers.”

The news puts Higley’s anticipated financial picture for the coming year in far better shape than most of its neighbors, whose budgets have been battered by enrollment declines in the classroom and the state’s lower reimbursement rate for students participating in virtual learning. 

The district lost an estimated 150 students this academic year. Moore said the students were mostly from the lower grades and that a flat enrollment growth was projected for 2021-22.

“When I have been in conversations with superintendents across the state in multiple meetings the conversation is not about pay increases,” Associate Superintendent Dawn Foley said. “In fact, in discussions they look at me like have I added that correctly? But every district is in a different position.”

Should the district go with the 5 percent hike, which would cost $3.5 million, Moore said Higley  would be left with around $4.3 million to spare, which he said is still “very healthy” and well within the district’s guidelines for budget balancing.  

Human Resources Executive Director Mum Martens said a compensations study was done last year and though not comparable, HUSD is in competition for employees with the Tempe and Chandler school districts and Gilbert Public Schools.

“As Mr. Moore mentioned in regards to that 5 percent and still having a healthy balance, we believe it’s something that we strongly have to look into if we are going to continue all of those things he mentioned in terms of being competitive and letting our employees know the value we have for them, especially given the timeframe of which we are in,” Martens said. “So, to be able to do something like that, I think will be valuable and telling in regards to their efforts and the things they have done.”

Board Vice President Jill Wilson asked if the 5 percent was enough.

“Will this make us more competitive to get those first-year teachers in and some of those other teachers,” she asked. “If not should we think about a bigger increase? I think our teachers maybe need more.”

Dr. Foley said being competitive is huge but staff did not look at anything beyond the 5 percent increase.

“Would we recommend more at this moment?” Foley said. “We haven’t figured the calculation for that. Obviously we always want to be competitive and pay our teachers as much as we can possibly pay them, pay all of our employees as much as we can but these are the figures that we feel comfortable bringing to you with what we know at the moment with the budget we have.

“We wanted you to see tonight as a board we have some decisions to make and that we could be talking about potential increases safely, while still having a balance remaining for some of the unknowns, uncertain things that we will still be navigating.”

The board is expected to vote on the proposed raises March 10.

 The district also planned to use some of the extra money to pay for a 10-percent increase in medical insurance, changes of insurance for property casualty and workers compensation and additional funds to provide employees with stipends, Moore said.  

Revisions to this year’s budget include reduction of funding for online learning by about $3 million.  Moore said this reduction is made with the anticipation that students will return to in-person instruction by the second half of the school year.  Because of the pandemic, the district is offering remote learning as well as in-person instruction.

HUSD also has been working to officially launch the virtual Higley Academy, which had a soft introduction this year, Foley said.  

 She said the district is building program administration and working on proficiency standards for the fully online K-12 academy, which is independent of any campus within the district.  

 Foley said the state may fund the virtual academy differently from the way it funds other online learning modes.

She also stressed that demand for the academy will drive staffing and its overall budget and that parents interested in the online academy should let the district know.  

Foley said the program is moving forward quickly and she expected it to be operational by next school year.  HUSD was one of the few East Valley districts without a virtual academy. 

As of Jan. 21, the district reported 11,336 students enrolled for in-person learning and 1,486 for remote.

Meanwhile, Martens told the board that availability of substitute teachers is about 20 percent lower than previous years.

 That problem is yet another result of concern over COVID-19 that nearly all school districts in the state are confronting.

 “Those that are in our sub pool aren’t interested in working right now because of COVID, so at times there’s been a little more pressure in that regard,” Martens said. 

Conversely, Martens said, regular teacher attendance rate has remained roughly the same as previous years.  

Martens said the district is searching for ways to encourage substitute teachers to work and increase their fill rate for the next school year.  

Martens said this school year, the district hired its first-ever “rescue subs.” These special substitute teachers are deployed if there are absences for COVID-related and other reasons, Martens said.  

“Most of the time, we’ve needed to use those rescue subs across the district.  Sometimes we’ve deployed them from one site to another site, depending on the fill-rate at the other sites,” Martens said.  

The board also was informed of possibility this November of a maintenance-and-operation bond, which would pay for things such as salaries and supplies. No figure was given by staff on the size of the proposed bond but the board will have to call for a bond election no later than June 9.  

Also at the meeting, Kristina Reese was voted in as board president and Wilson as board vice president. Reese also served as president in 2019.