‘Stepped on and pushed out’: No raises for some Beaufort Co. school employees since 2004

Do data clerks in Beaufort Co. schools need higher pay? Here’s what they had to say

Data clerks in the Beaufort County School District are fighting for raises after the topic was dismissed at a school board meeting. Here are some of the daily tasks data clerks say they complete — and how long they've gone without a raise.
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Data clerks in the Beaufort County School District are fighting for raises after the topic was dismissed at a school board meeting. Here are some of the daily tasks data clerks say they complete — and how long they've gone without a raise.

On the last Tuesday of the school year, Ina Rollins held a perfect attendance luncheon at H.E. McCracken Middle School, setting up decorations and food she had ordered.

She was tired — most of her Memorial Day weekend had been devoted to working on next fall’s class schedules for the school’s 740 students.

North of the Broad River, Regina Johnson watched as students at Port Royal Elementary School ran up and down the halls for a field day moved indoors due to 100-plus degree heat.

That morning, she had greeted parents and students at the school’s front desk, signing in late arrivals; that afternoon, she prepared report cards to go home with 200 students.

Johnson and Rollins are both data clerks for Beaufort County School District. And, after seeing other school professionals get pay raises in the 2019-20 budget, which was passed by the board May 28, they’ve joined a growing list of district employees who say their stagnant salaries aren’t cutting it.

“The data clerks are the ones that are funding the district,” Rollins told the Beaufort County Board of Education in public comment on May 21, a week before the board voted 7-4 to pass the budget that did not include raises for the data clerks. “And that means that if our data is not clean, that is pennies or dollars that you cannot spend.”

‘We’re not asking for anything that’s not due to us’

There are around 30 data clerks in Beaufort County schools.

They cover the front desk, register kindergartners and transfer students, monitor truancy with counselors and social workers and distribute report cards. They keep track of grades, detentions, suspensions and attendance.

All of this data, along with identifying tags for students — gifted and talented, low-income, special education, etc. — is used to determine the state funding the district receives.

“We perform every function of a registrar required at a school,” Johnson said. “In addition, we are receptionists, attendance clerks, and the first person many of the children and our parents encounter.”

Rollins sets the schedule for her school, and Johnson said a large part of her job is filling in where her principal needs her, whether that’s watching a classroom for a few minutes or discussing enrollment and class placement. They both live in the districts they serve, and emphasize the importance of community — Johnson says she’s seen former students become parents at her school. They credit this sense of community as a reason to stay with the district, amidst frequent turnover in data clerk and teacher positions alike.

“When you can go elsewhere and work for more money with less responsibility, it makes it hard to come here,” Rollins said. “I do it because I love the children and I love what I do.”

During her 17 years as a data specialist at McCracken, Rollins has gotten one raise.

“That was one that I went to the district to get myself,” she said.

She asked for it after taking on more high school data responsibilities when McCracken shifted to include the ninth grade. “We’re not asking for anything that’s not due to us.”

Johnson, who has worked at Port Royal Elementary for 24 years and as a data specialist there for more than 15, said she has not gotten a raise in her position, other than a cost-of-living allowance.

While Johnson and Rollins declined to state their pay, a database of local public employees maintained by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette showed that both made between $30,000 and $34,000 annually as of January 2018.

Board member William Smith said when he voted May 28 his focus had been on teachers’ assistants who had gone without raises for several years.

“Moving forward, I do understand how important data clerks are,” he said. “But I don’t know maybe if my colleagues understand how important data clerks are.”

Raises in the budget

Of the school board’s 2019-20 $256 million budget, nearly $1.5 million is targeted at salary raises for support staff — that is, the non-teachers of the district, including data clerks, bus drivers, school nurses, social workers and teacher’s assistants. While they, and other school employees, receive a cost-of-living increase and locality supplement each year, many say that it’s not enough to cover rising costs in the rapidly-growing county.

In the budget, school nurses and social workers are being moved to a new pay scale to account for their college degrees; teacher’s assistants are receiving a pay increase on the current scale. Altogether, these increases will cost approximately $1.5 million.

School nurses and social workers came to several meetings before the budget was certified to advocate for raises. Hilton Head Island High School staff nurse Amy Morrissette told board members that her paycheck would barely cover a month of groceries and rent for an average two-bedroom apartment, leaving some with $14 after those expenses.

In the 2018-19 school year, Beaufort County data clerks were designated as “schedule 104” employees, eligible for hourly wages between $12.59 and $20.51. At eight hours a day for 260 days a year, this results in an annual salary range of $26,187 to $43,492. The board considered moving data clerks to the “schedule 107” range, which has an hourly rate from $14.78 to $24.55. According to a May 16 board document of possible budget changes, this pay schedule bump would have cost the district $290,093.

While the board approved raises for many other support staff, the proposal for data clerks was left on the table.

“We were reviewing the budget, and we did notice that the social workers, school bus drivers, I think athletic directors and nurses — there was a line item for them to receive a raise,” Johnson said. “There was not a line item in there for the data folks.”

After that discovery, Rollins and Johnson reached out to colleagues on their respective sides of the river, texting, calling and emailing through a network strengthened by monthly trainings and meetings. On May 20, both women were signed up for public comment at the school board’s meeting, bolstered by the presence of colleagues and a principal who vouched for her data clerk in public comment.

“We are the ones that seem to get stepped on and pushed out every time this comes up, but we are the first ones everyone turns to when they want information or something done,” Rollins told the board.

Next steps

While the board went on to certify its 2019-20 budget at that meeting, there is still a high likelihood that the budget will change.

To finalize the district budget, it needs to be read at County Council three times, and can be altered prior to June 17, when council is scheduled to hold its second reading of the budget. However, cuts are more likely than additions.

“I’m only doing this to make sure the school district gets to work on a solution for us if they possibly can,” council member Brian Flewelling said Monday, as the county finance committee moved the budget forward to its first reading. “We will be paying close attention to what they’re doing.”

Rollins spoke again on May 28, joined by Hilton Head Island Elementary School’s data clerk Sherol Pheiffer. Pheiffer, who has worked at the school for 23 years, said she has trained four data clerks in four years at one district school due to turnover.

“If you want more money, you need to invest in those who pound the keyboard,” Pheiffer said, detailing the years of training it took to learn how to set up a good school schedule and memorize the codes to identify gifted and talented students, who garner a $500 stipend for their schools.

“My biggest concern is when a sheriff walks into my office,” she continued. “One particular visit concerned a missing student. He wanted to know the names, addresses and phone numbers of all the unaccounted-for female students between the ages of 8 and 10 living on the south end of Hilton Head Island. Could you give him an answer? A data clerk with limited experience cannot.”

Rollins had already spoken about her duties as a data clerk at the last meeting. Instead, she discussed her diagnosis of Meniere’s disease, which can cause vertigo, hearing loss and tinnitus. She needs new cochlear implants to combat her hearing loss — even with insurance, it will cost more than $2,000.

“On the salary that I make in this district, I can’t do it,” she said to close out her comment. “Thank y’all for listening.”

Rachel Jones covers education for the Island Packet and the Beaufort Gazette. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has worked for the Daily Tar Heel and Charlotte Observer. Rachel grew up in Ayden, NC, surrounded by teachers.