‘It’s going to impact my life so much’: Two Henrico teachers share ‘salary stories’ after county proposes increased pay

Henrico County

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — Asking your boss for a raise requires a lot of confidence.

For two confident teachers in Henrico County, the journey to receiving a salary increase was an effort two years in the making.

Last week, the Henrico Board of Supervisors proposed raises for government and school employees with a budget proposal going into effect in early March that “focuses on the people,” according to Chief of Staff Cari Tretina.

This employee compensation plan will span the course of six to seven months and will bring a minimum increase of 4.4% to the county’s salaried employees.

And there was an added twist.

Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas, alongside the Board of Supervisors, created a compensation reward system that increases salaries for long-time employees.

Two of those in virtual attendance at that board meeting were Mary Morrissey and Merle James, both of whom have been teachers in Henrico County for over 30 years.

But their journey didn’t start last week.

The pair began their quest for higher pay in 2019 after Henrico County did a salary compression study on their employees. James and Morrissey said they both didn’t qualify for a salary compression adjustment, meaning there was little difference in pay between employees working the same job despite total years served.

Tyrone Nelson, the Varina District representative on the Henrico Board of Supervisors, said he sat down with a group of veteran teachers 18 months ago where the teachers expressed how the compression study didn’t help veteran teachers.

“They were right,” Nelson said. “The County Manager and his staff were also looking at how this applied to Public Safety employees, those with CDL’s, and other areas. They realized that we had some areas of challenge and opportunity.”

“It was time to stand up. Time to speak up,” Morrissey said. “That’s what put us on the journey to say, ‘what can we do?'”

They began collecting records of their contracts to show how little their pay had changed over the course of their careers with Henrico County Public Schools and decided to present the information to Superintendent Dr. Amy Cashwell.

“Almost in tears, when you see it on paper after that many years. Wow,” Morrissey said.

In early 2020, they began to share their “salary stories” with the school board at meetings. They expressed their grievances with pay and felt they deserved more for how long they have served.

By March, they spoke at a Board of Supervisors meeting to address the same concerns. At the time, they said the board was willing to allot $255,000 to help the teachers between 20 and 30 years receive higher salaries.

Merle James (Left) and Mary Morrissey (Right) at a Board of Supervisors meeting in 2020

Then the pandemic hit the nation, causing the board to have to adjust the budget to fit an unprecedented circumstance.

“We didn’t see the raise due to COVID. But we didn’t give up,” Morrissey said.

They continued to show up to meetings and give their sides of the story until the Board of Supervisors meeting on Feb. 9, where the salary increases were announced.

“The COVID reductions challenged us to make cuts, but it also provided an opportunity for us to get the “house” in order with our employees,” Tyrone Nelson added. “These ladies stayed consistent, others did too, and we are here now. I am excited about voting for these proposed increases.”

Merle James, an art teacher in Henrico County for 30 years

“When he laid that plan out for a 6.9% raise, we were blown away,” James said. “However, when he [Vithoulkas] added on the longevity bonuses for all of the county employees, we were just dumbfounded. Do you know how huge that is? You just have no idea. It is like Christmas time.”

Morrissey, a single mother, said the salary increases are not only going to make life a little easier — it will help her put her son through college.

“I am just so grateful for Mr. Vithoulkas and the Board of Supervisors for them to be able to do what they have done,” Morrissey said. “It’s going to impact my life so much.”

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