By Chris McGuinness
Killeen Daily Herald

After contentious discussion and a split vote, members of the Killeen Independent School District’s board approved a 2 percent pay increase for staff next school year.

The board voted 5-2 for the increase, recommended by superintendent Robert Muller during a board workshop Tuesday.

Muller said the increase was, in part, a way to thank district staff for working hard to cope with deep state funding cuts.

“We asked the staff to do more with less and they did that,” he said. “The district employees delivered what we asked them to.”

The 2 percent raise will affect staff across the board and will amount to about an extra $970 per year for the district’s teachers, said Steve Cook, the district’s executive director for personnel services.

Cook said the vote also increased starting pay for beginning teachers next year to $41,000 annually, up from $40,600.

“I believe it will help our recruiting effort as we look to hire teachers for next year,” said Cook. “Raising that starting pay will help make us competitive regionally.”

The raises will cost the district about $4.1 million, officials said. Both Muller and Cook assured the board the expenditure would not strain the district’s budget because the 2 percent figure was based on projected revenue and expenditures for the next school year.

Board member Kenneth Ray and board secretary Shelly Wells voted against the increase. Ray said he had no comment on his vote Tuesday afternoon, but told the board that the economy is “still a big question.”

Wells did not return messages seeking comment.

The board also decided to delay approving an additional 2 percent increase in the district’s contribution to employee health benefits programs next year. If approved, the increase would cost $242,106.

A motion to approve increases in both compensation and benefits was defeated 5-2 prior to the vote on the pay raise alone.

Board member Minerva Trujillo voted for both increases as did Corbett Lawler, worried that the pay raise would have less of an impact if it wasn’t coupled with an increase in benefit contributions.

“Our teachers have worked so hard and they have been doing good work despite the hardships,” said Trujillo, who is running unopposed for re-election in May. “Health insurance costs are going up, and I worry that a 2 percent raise could be dissolved by the rising costs of health insurance.”

The issue of increasing benefit contributions is expected to be revisited at April’s regular meeting.