Higher minimum wage would have major impact on local school system

The most surprising result of raising the minimum wage to $12 is the increase in the cost of school lunches by 62%. (Photo provided by PCSSTN)

By Michelle Price
UCBJ Managing Editor

COOKEVILLE – As national discussion around an increased minimum wage takes center stage, local leaders on many fronts have decided to dive into the issue by assessing the potential impact. One area of concern, according to Mark McReynolds, has turned out to be the impact on and in our school system.

Reynolds is the Chief Financial Officer for the Putnam County School System (PCSSTN). He and other leaders of the PCSSTN recently decided to take a close look at what an increase would mean to Putnam County, as well as parents of students in the system. 

Their calculations were surprising, even as they tempered their expectations to a $12 per hour rate instead of the $15 an hour rate that’s being discussed at the national level. 

The net effect? Almost $3 million dollars in local and national budget increases, and that’s before an impact on parents for certain services. Here’s where and how:

First, an increase in the minimum wage to $12 per hour would cost Putnam County taxpayers about $1.7 million. That’s because 417, or just over 25%, of the 1,650 school system employees earn less than $15. These are primarily the teaching assistants, school-age children (SAC) workers, some school nurses, nutrition workers and most part-time employees. The current minimum pay for PCSSTN employees is $9 an hour.

Second, increases in wages for employees in fee-based and federally funded programs — like school nutrition, SAC and Employed Child Care (ECC) — would account for an additional $1.2 million, bringing the total cost of the wage increase to $2.9 million. 

Third, and perhaps most surprising, is the fact that increased minimum wages would raise school lunches by 62%. For example, the cost of a full-price student lunch would go from $2.40 to $3.90. Adult meals would increase from $2.65 to $4.15, and reduced student meals would go from being “free” to costing $0.70 per meal. 

“(All that is based on) a $12 minimum wage. Double (the impact) if it turns out to be $15,” Director of Schools Corby King stated. “So, it’s fine if (the federal government) wants to send the money to fund that, but if they don’t, we don’t know how we would make that happen. I would hope they would. I would hope the state would increase the BEP to offset some of that. But assuming we got no relief, that is the impact to our local economy.”

But that might not be all. Because any minimum wage increase above the current $9 per hour would require a shift in the entire “non-certified” pay scale. You can’t just take everything below a salary scale and move it up, school officials explained. “You have to move the whole scale.”

“There’s really not that many people below $12. There would be quite a bit more below $15. You can’t just move those,” McReynolds explained. “It would be a strange scale with all these $15s, and all of a sudden, it goes above $15 – where you just essentially make $15 per hour for years. In other words, you can’t just start at $15 and stay at that rate. At some point, you have to move above that” because of the way pay scales work.

Then, there are unspoken questions like this: If support staff gets this increase, and a teaching assistant is increased to $30,000 yearly, will the school system have to raise the $40,000 starting salary for teachers to continue to attract them?

Furthermore, will the increased pay cause some to begin working as a teaching assistant immediately following high school, instead of spending four years and thousands of dollars to receive a degree and a teaching license? Will it further increase the teacher shortage that the state and nation are already facing? And how will parents in low-income families manage the increase school lunches?

It seems there are more questions – and concerns – than answers right now.

Michelle Price is the managing editor of the Upper Cumberland Business Journal and can be reached via email. Send an email.

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