Lake Travis School District Raises Salaries to Fill Vacancies and Retain Staff

Students in Lake Travis School District cafeterias have been waiting longer than usual for their meals this year due to understaffing in the food and nutrition services department. The district has 34 vacancies in food service and Superintendent Paul Norton called on staff working to keep the system together and feed the kids “superheroes.”

Cafeterias are just one of the places the district is struggling to find and retain employees, and Lake Travis isn’t the only one having staffing issues. Many districts across the state and nation lack teachers, bus drivers, janitors and everything in between. The Lake Travis School Board took steps to address the issue Wednesday night, voting to increase staff pay and allow a second one-time staff payment this spring in hopes of recruiting and retaining workers.

The board has already voted to approve a one-time payment this year. The district has a three-tier salary structure for each position, and the previous payout was 2% of mid-level salary for each position for administrative staff and 3% of mid-level salary for each position for all other members. Staff. This payment was split into two installments, one that was delivered in December and another that will be released in May.

The board voted on Wednesday to add an additional 2% payment for all staff to be paid between April and May. That payment will cost the district about $1.3 million and will be covered by federal coronavirus relief funds, according to Evalene Murphy, assistant superintendent for employee and community relations.

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The board also voted to approve adjusting the pay scale for auxiliary, clerical and paraprofessional staff to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour. This group of employees includes a range from elementary monitors to aides who work in special education classrooms.

The change took effect immediately and raised the minimum wage for some positions, such as crossing guards, by about $11 an hour. That adjustment will cost the district about $300,000 this year, but Assistant Superintendent of Business and Operations Pam Sanchez assured the board the district could afford the cost.

The latest change to pay the board approved on Wednesday will take effect next year and will adjust the pay scale for teachers for those with between five and 36 years of experience. The adjustments range from $360 a year to $2,000 a year, Murphy said, and are set up that way so the district can avoid inconsistent step increases from year to year.

Murphy clarified that this adjustment is separate from the annual increase in staff compensation, which she will present to the board later in the spring.

Several board members expressed support for the investment in staff, especially given some of the difficulties the district has had in hiring employees.

“This is the most important thing for our district,” said administrator Phillip Davis. “If our people aren’t here, if they don’t want to come here, and you have to look where we are, people are going through other districts to get to work here, and with (RM) 620 and (Texas) 71, it’s not easy to get here, so it’s very, very important, not necessarily that we’re number one, but that we’re a place where these people are comfortable with that.

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Murphy said while school staffing is a national concern, in part due to pandemic-related burnout, Lake Travis faces unique challenges based on its location and the cost of life in the region.

“Our community is a cherished community for a lot of our employees, so it’s tough for us,” Murphy said. “Geographically it’s tough for us, inflation is tough for us, cost of living is tough for us here.”

Norton said the average cost of a home in the district is now $650,000, up from $93,000 last year. Murphy pointed out that unless a staff member lives in the district, and many don’t, they have to go through another district to get to work, which is why she said it was so important to have a competitive salary and benefits.

This list of changes is “the most aggressive salary adjustment” the district has approved in Murphy’s five years in his role, she said. From second one-off payments to increments for staff in different roles, the district has never done anything like this before with staff compensation.

“(These changes) really take us out of our previous philosophy of matching that market pay to jumping and leading that market pay,” she said. “We’ve never made a large-scale, targeted adjustment to our attendant, clerical and para-professional pay rates before, in terms of wholesale moving so many people. This move alone will potentially impact around 240 staff. That’s huge because our staff are also the lowest earners in the district.

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The school board also approved an election agreement with Travis County to hold the May 7 election this year. Three board positions are up for re-election and early voting begins April 25.

The council discussed holding an independent election after several community members expressed distrust of the Travis County Clerk’s office, but Sanchez said between the costs of staff and equipment, such an undertaking would be incredibly expensive.

Several years ago, the cost of personnel alone was estimated to be around $300,000 — a figure Sanchez says has likely increased — in addition to the cost of purchasing all election materials. By comparison, last May’s election in Travis County cost about $45,000, as the county splits the cost among several participating municipalities.

“I think the amount of service we get from Travis County is totally justified compared to the $45,000 we would typically pay,” she said.

Paying for elections independently would draw funds from the budget that would otherwise be spent on student programming and paying teachers, Sanchez said.

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