By Jody Steinberg
More than 150 people, many of them apparently DeKalb school employees, picketed the county school board this week to protest the school superintendent’s recent pay hike.
Pickets lined blocks of North Decatur Road for almost two hours Jan. 11 to protest the Superintendent Crawford Lewis’ pay increase at time other employees have seen their salaries cut or frozen. Protestors greeted passing cars with signs bearing messages such as “We are all going backwards – except for one.” Drivers honked in support.
“We feel it’s not a shared sacrifice,” said Miriam Martin, Lakeside High School media specialist. “It’s like the fat cats on Wall Street who get the big bonus while the man on Main Street suffers.”
A week earlier, in an 8-1 vote, the board had extended Lewis’ contract through January 2013 and increased his salary from $240,000 to $255,000, his personal expense account from $1,000 to $2,500 a month, and contributions to his tax-free savings annuity from $5,000 to $15,000 a year.
Board members said Lewis had met the goals set for him, that his contract was due for renewal and that the new compensation brought his pay close to the salary he was promised in 2007, but had not taken because of budget cuts.
“We feel completely betrayed,” said one middle school teacher, who asked her name not be used. “He [Lewis] told us in September that we all need to make sacrifices. This is a slap in the face, absolutely an insult.”
Other DeKalb school employees took a mandatory two-percent reduction last year, and have had salaries frozen since. Also, the district’s contributions to tax-sheltered retirement plans have been suspended and all teachers must take a “furlough” day without pay.
Last spring, Lewis ordered a two-percent pay cut for all administrators paid more than $100,000. Lewis himself turned down a $10,000 cost-of-living increase last year.
Through a DeKalb school spokesman, Lewis declined a request for an interview for this article.
When it came time to review his contract this year, Lewis made it clear that he felt he deserved – and expected – a raise.
While most board members have said little about the situation, Dr. Eugene Walker, who cast the sole dissenting vote, objected to the timing of the raise, saying it sent the wrong message to all the other employees when the economic reality has forced them to lose salary and benefits to budget cuts.
“I disagree with a pay increase at any level at this time,” Walker said on his Web site (www.DrEPWalker.com). “It concerns me greatly that the superintendent would even ask this board for a raise, in light of anticipated revenue losses in the coming years due to a very adverse economic climate. It is strange to me that the superintendent recommended (and the board approved) a number of significant salary and benefit reductions to our employees.”
But, in an interview, board member Don McChesney defended the new contract, saying Lewis has done a good job and “has every right to be compensated.”
“In 2007, the board promised Lewis a raise of $10,000 and he didn’t take it,” McChesney said. “He didn’t have to give it up. He could have demanded it.”
McChesney said the new contract better protects the school system. The higher expense account gives Lewis more discretion, but eliminates other perks, such as club memberships. It also obligates the school system to pay a maximum of four months salary if Lewis is dismissed. When former superintendant Johnny Brown was fired, the school system had to pay him more than a year’s salary.