AJUSD Works to Purge Inequities in Payroll

Second look at long term employees results in no additional changes

By Dana Trumbull

On April 9, the Apache Junction Unified School District Governing Board approved a new salary schedule investing $900,000 to raise employee compensation from the 25th percentile to a median wage falling in the 40th percentile as compared to 25 similar and/or neighboring districts. The measure also created more meaningful steps between job classifications with differing responsibility levels. Board members requested, however, that the superintendent’s Salary Advisory Committee reconvene to study the circumstances of the six long term employees whose wages were frozen under the plan and consider the possibility of a stipend to acknowledge their loyalty to the district.

On April 18, the Board met in special session to hear that follow up report. After analysis, the committee recommended that no additional pay be offered for longevity due to a lack of consistent circumstances between the long term employees whose pay is frozen. Without a common basis  for stipends, there could be potential conflict with labor law.

“The committee wrestled with the idea of, ‘What is a long-term employee?’” explained Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Cruz. Despite having a consistently high turnover rate (approximately 33% annually; a problem generally attributed to low wages), the district also employs 50 people who have been with AJUSD since 1999 or earlier. All but one of these employees, however, are return-to-work employees.

“Some are return-to-work employees, but not in the same years; the return-to-work employees have different percentages that they earn, so there wasn’t much consistency there…but you can see that, of our employees with longevity, there are three employees who will not get a raise this year based on their percentile being well outside the range cap.”

Under Arizona law, government employees, when they become eligible for retirement, can “retire” from their employer, but continue working in the same position through a third-party contracted vendor (for schools, the vendor is SmartSchools). This allows them to increase their overall income by drawing on their retirement funds through the Arizona State Retirement System, while continuing to earn a (reduced) paycheck.

After one year, these employees are eligible to return to the district’s payroll, but are brought back into the system with a new hire date. Their pay rate is generally set as if they were new hires, but,  “[The district] has not done that consistently,” said Cruz. “Some have come back and been placed as new hires, while others have maintained their previous pay structure.” These return-to-work employees continue to draw retirement funds from ASRS, as well.

With the financial benefits of pursuing return-to-work status through SmartSchools, the issue of continuous longevity was important to the committee when considering additional compensation for long term employees. “We had some return-to-work employees and other folks who will not see a raise this year on the committee, and they did not recommend a longevity stipend at this time, because it would potentially create more of the same inequities that we were trying to normalize with this salary schedule,” said Cruz.

“It’s very difficult to tell someone, ‘you’re not going to get a raise’ – but it’s not about not working hard;  it’s about our financial situation and trying to normalize our schedule and get people as close as possible to the median, which we’re currently just nowhere near.”

The nine employees who are frozen are in the 120th-126th pay percentile as compared to other districts. Six of these employees are long term. Only one of the long term employees has not participated in the SmartSchools return-to-work program.

“We will be talking to that person to be sure they realize that they could have that opportunity that might be financially beneficial to them if they want to become a return-to-work employee,” Cruz added.

“I’ll be honest. I’m having a hard time with this,” commented Board Vice-President Cami Garcia, “because I do care about the longevity of our employees, and I know the rest of the board feels the same. We want to keep these people here; there’s a connection with our kids, and it is very much appreciated. But I understand the balance that needs to be made as well.”

Board Member Christa Rizzi summarized, “I am really disappointed, but I appreciate the great work the committee put into this; this was so long overdue. There were so many inequities and inconsistencies that happened over decades; we had to get some normalization here. And we have to look at how we’re going to get employees in and keep employees. It’s just… our people have to matter.

“Let’s do everything that we can to treat our people in such a way that they know they matter and they want to be here, even though we can’t pay as much. That’s what’s always held this district together…because it’s a family and that’s how they’ve been treated. And we need to make sure that continues. And we need to make sure those aren’t just words.”

Board members agreed to prioritize their efforts to find other ways to connect with employees and show their appreciation for their work and loyalty to the district and to the students.

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