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Henderson County School Board member Amy Lynn Holt on Monday night delivered a spirited defense of the $26,000 raise the board gave superintendent David Jones last month and Jones later declined to respond when the chairman of the county Republican Party asked him to turn down the raise and hire a teacher assistant instead.
The strong opinions on either side of the controversial 18 percent pay raise came during a tense public comment period that also included speakers lambasting the state Legislature for school cuts. One said she had "the worst case of buyer's remorse" for voting for Republicans who are now trying to "systematically dismantle public education."
The School Board voted 5-1 on Aug. 12 to raise Jones' pay to $166,625 a year, setting off protests from some parents and howls from the public. But a large turnout of people speaking against Jones and the board did not come to pass Monday night.
Of eight speakers, only county GOP chairman Andrew Riddle directly criticized the pay raise. Three criticized the public education budget adopted by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory. A Tea Party member urged the board to oppose the national education curriculum known as the Common Core standards. Two school employees thanked the board for saving as many jobs as it did. And one speaker confronted board members about not having their email addresses listed on line.
"As a taxpayer and citizen can anyone tell me why I can't email a question or concern to a board member?" Robert Edmondson asked. "You realize you're the only elected board that you cannot contact through email."
He got immediate results. On a motion by Josh Houston — who also cast the no vote on Jones's raise last month — the board voted to add members' emails to the school system's website.
'I stand by my vote'
Holt, who was not on the board when Jones was promoted to superintendent three years ago, read a statement defending the 18 percent pay raise.
When the board offered Jones a contract three years ago, he agreed "he would do the job for one year, and would also not rehire the position of assistant superintendent," she said. "So he would absorb those duties and save the district money to not rehire that position. After one year, the board was to review him and give him a pay raise that more aligned with superintendent instead of the assistant superintendent pay scale.
"This should have been done two years ago. For whatever reason we did not do a review and did not raise his pay to what he should have been getting. If the board would have gone ahead and paid him what his position requires three years ago, this would be a non-issue right now.
"I would also like to note we did not take any money from classroom allotment to use for his raise. We took money dedicated to central office budget.
"I agree the timing of this stinks. We're getting cut so much by the state. I as a board member cannot control the teachers' pay scale. That is set by the state. I cannot control the fact that the state has not given school employees a raise in five years," she said. "What is in my control, however, is what our superintendent makes. I don't feel that if the state is treating our teachers poorly that we need to treat our superintendent poorly and pay him way below what the state average is, and quite frankly he is worth so much more than that. What if the state goes on five more years without giving raises? Does that mean that he cannot be given the pay raise that he was promised because of that? ... Because we are now paying Mr. Jones what he is qualified to be paid doesn't mean we don't value other employees."
As county schools superintendent, Jones is responsible for more employees than any CEO in the county, Holt said.
"He is doing an amazing job," she said. "He is not making the average pay for all superintendents even with his raise. He is not even making the average pay for our district size. We have one of the largest districts in North Carolina and our students perform better than average North Carolina students. I stand by my vote for giving him a raise and feel it was long overdue."
'Make the tough choice'
Riddle, the GOP chairman, said the school system, like his own construction company and other businesses, has to make tough choices.
"The CEO of Mission Hospital had to reduce his salary, lay off three vice presidents and 70 employees. That's a tough thing to do," Riddle said. "We all agree that more needs to be done for public education. We all agree that teachers are undervalued. Where are our priorities? As Raleigh tries to put together a budget that works we all have to cut and it's a hard thing to do. So my question is for you, Mr. Jones, Would you be willing to decline your $26,000 raise and ask the School Board to reallocate the funds to the schoolteachers?"
After a brief silence, board chairman Ervin Bazzle muttered, "He didn't have any choice."
Then School Board attorney Dean Shatley stepped in.
"You certainly can ask the question rhetorically, and it's up the board whether or not they want to answer it," he told Riddle. "What I'm saying is you can't expect a response."
"That's fine," Riddle said. "We'll know soon enough. We ask (the schools) to make the tough choice. Twenty-six thousand dollars is one more school teacher assistant."