Henrico County officials on Monday built greater consensus toward improving teacher pay and retention as well as alleviating classroom overcrowding, but what concrete actions the public wrangling will lead to and what the price tag will be remained unclear.

Henrico’s School Board and schools staff will study how to address overcrowding and how to deal with keeping teachers from leaving. The School Board and Henrico’s Board of Supervisors will be working with their staffs to address the issue of pay compression for county employees.

No clear timeline was set for studying the issues or how much funding is available to fix them.

Discussion at a special meeting Monday touched on a $6 million proposal to improve teacher pay scales and the $29.2 million it would take to make all of the school system’s employees the best paid in the region. The Board of Supervisors will vote on the county’s next budget April 24, but the financial plan could later be adjusted to reflect any school reforms that receive approval.

The renewed focus on classroom sizes and teacher supports was the product of a Monday evening special meeting of the School Board and Board of Supervisors, along with County Manager John Vithoulkas, Superintendent Patrick Kinlaw and other staff members. The meeting at Hungary Creek Middle School was a continuation of Henrico’s budget talks that started in March and have seen Supervisor Courtney Lynch of the Brookland District clash with county officials over her advocacy of a targeted pay increase for teachers.

Whether the teacher raises could occur on their own or as part of a raise for all county employees was a matter of debate Monday. The proposed budget already includes raises for all county employees. Lynch was the only supervisor to openly support a targeted raise for teachers but was open to a proposal that somehow maintained the county’s unified pay plan and made teacher salaries more competitive. Lynch said she is taking a free-market approach in keeping with the times.

“Teachers are scarce,” Lynch said. “Custodians are not.”

That sentiment differed from other supervisors who said the county has to take care of all its employees and that a pay raise might not even be the biggest priority for teachers dealing with crowded classrooms and career development needs.

“We do have to think of all employees,” Supervisor Pat O’Bannon of the Tuckahoe District said. “We are the bean counters.”

In his opening remarks, Board of Supervisors Chair Frank Thornton of the Fairfield District discussed his peers’ unity of purpose and history of collaboration on things like Henrico’s meals tax and a recent bond referendum.

School Board Chair Micky Ogburn of the Three Chopt District thanked the county for including a countywide pay raise that offers more to longer-term employees and an additional 22 elementary school teachers in the proposed budget. She said the school system needed to increase salaries, reduce class sizes and offer more support for teachers early in their careers. Ogburn said the School Board recognized that funding isn’t unlimited and called for a thoughtful review.

“Parents feel like their students are being short-changed,” Ogburn said regarding overcrowded classrooms. “We feel like we need to do even more.”

The Board of Supervisors and the School Board meet annually for a joint work session on the school system’s budget. Monday’s additional meeting was held in the wake of Lynch’s calls for adding $4.3 million to the schools budget to help make teacher salaries more competitive with neighboring localities. The proposal took some supervisors by surprise and irked others who felt the School Board should be the entity taking the lead on education policy.

Vithoulkas questioned the reliability of the data Lynch relied on and eventually produced research showing that Henrico’s teacher pay was competitive with the counties of Chesterfield and Hanover, and that all three counties trail Richmond when it comes to teacher pay. Lynch later criticized Vithoulkas as stepping beyond his duties and trying to set policy; Supervisor Tyrone Nelson of the Varina District defended Vithoulkas’ work.

“I think there are different ways to skin a cat,” Nelson said Monday of the different items that were discussed. “We need to look at it comprehensively.”

Vithoulkas left most of the talking to the supervisors. The former finance director did take note of some of the costs that were discussed.

“It’s not Monopoly money we’re talking about,” Vithoulkas said in an interview. “These are real dollars.”

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