School nurses ask for better pay

By Greg Gelpi

For the second straight month, school employees requested equality in pay from the Clayton County Board of Education.

Paraprofessionals in February and school nurses Monday night showed up in force to address the board and ask for help in what they see as unfair pay practices.

School nurses lined the back of the boardroom as fellow nurses, Clayton County Education Association President Sid Chapman and Clayton County Branch of the NAACP President Dexter Matthews addressed the school board, seeking answers to low salaries for nurses in light of numerous administrative pay raises earlier this year.

"I am concerned that most may not realize the vital role nurses play in the Clayton County school system," Angie Spikes, a Clayton County school nurse, said to the board.

Many nurses are paid $18,000, and the school system recently began paying registered nurses and licensed practical nurses the same amount, which won't make their salaries competitive with school systems in the metro area, Chapman said.

School nurse Nancy Zaj of Oliver Elementary School listed the numbers of students and staff that she has treated for illness and injury, adding that most of those students were sent back to class.

"These are students who would otherwise not be in the classroom learning," Zaj said.

Board Chairwoman Ericka Davis said afterward that it's difficult to determine someone's worth and to pick and choose who is worth more than who, but that that is why the school board voted to conduct a compensation study, a study that will review all system salaries from "top to bottom."

"I don't discount the importance of what they do," Davis said. "The purpose of the compensation study is so we can look at these salaries."

She said that she could only speak for herself, but that those on the lower end of the salary scales will be the ones she is most concerned with with regard to the study, but added that the budget must guide many decisions.

"The budget drives everything we do," Davis said, calling her job a "tough gig."

No matter what decisions are made, someone will be upset, she said.

In the meantime, Smith Elementary School nurse Brenda Witherington said that she is working an extra job to pad her school pay, which she said doesn't increase with experience as does the pay of teachers.

"It's an insult to the nursing profession," Witherington said. "School nurses are not paid as well as nurses in hospitals, but there are school systems that are better than Clayton."

Chapman, who represented the nurses, called them "vital" to the school system, and Matthews, who is an accountant, questioned the school system's math.

"We need money to spend on our children, not sitting in this building," Matthews said in reference to pay raises that brought all of the system's assistant superintendents to more than $115,000 each. "We don't need to pay the people in this building when the problems are in the schools."

After reports of 32 five-digit salary increases, the school board approved a systemwide moratorium on salary adjustments and authorized the compensation study last month.

School Superintendent Barbara Pulliam said that the compensation study could cost upward of $500,000, based on the costs of similar studies in metro Atlanta.