THE BOTTOM RUNG 

Nancy Lund spends her days at the Edgewood School District stirring steaming vats of Sloppy Joe mix, lugging pans of sizzling Tater Tots, and carving cobbler into small squares for about 500 kids at Gardendale Elementary School. She is one of only three cafeteria workers at the school who feed the masses everyday ("I put skates on," she says) and after nine years at this job, the single mother earns $6.78 an hour, which equals, before taxes, about $9,763 for a 180-day school year.

The dispute over workers' pay is a burr under the saddle of the Edgewood School District, whose board last week passed its 2002-03 budget — without a living wage provision demanded by the Southwest Workers Union.

At issue is the abysmal starting salary for the bottom end of the pay scale; the 2.5 percent pay hike for all district employees bumps the lowest wage to a whopping $7.11 an hour, about what they could earn at a North Side Bill Miller's. Many employees are also concerned about the number of years a janitor, cafeteria worker, or bus driver can get mired in the quicksand of poverty-level pay.

 
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Edgewood Superintendent Luis Gonzalez took heat at the August 27 school board meeting for the lack of a living wage provision in the budget. Photo by Mark Greenberg

Nick Charles, 18 years in inventory, earns $8.81 an hour; Rachel Morales in purchasing makes close to $10, which sounds promising, except it took her 20 years to reach that pay level.

"Workers have been there for years, and some years they got nothing," said Edgewood board member Jesse Acala, who, with Mary Lou Menendez, voted no on the budget.

SWU's proposed $11.46 hourly wage might be beyond reach for a troubled district beset by a small tax base, a high tax rate, and increases in utilities and insurance, but SWU Director Chavel Lopez said his group was willing to embrace a pay scale that would have reached that level over time. "Bring the bottom up out of poverty. At least bring them up to $8 or $9, and accept the concept of a living wage," he explained.

But board member Jesus Calvillo called the SWU's expectations "unrealistic."

"They don't understand and have no concept of what it requires to contain what we can spend with what we have," he said. "It's very difficult to address everybody."

SWU based its recommended living wage on Housing and Urban Development guidelines that state no more than 30 percent of a workers' salary should go towards rent or mortgage; in San Antonio, HUD estimates the average cost of a two-bedroom apartment in San Antonio is $596, meaning a worker would have to earn about $2,000 a month to afford it.

According to Dr. John Walch, assistant superintendent for business and management support services, Edgewood uses a formula developed by the Texas Association of School Boards, the Midpoint Compensation Plan, which bases salaries on the going market rate.

There is just one snag with that formula, said Lopez: "The problem is San Antonio is a low-wage town."

Walsh pointed out only three pay grades fall below the SWU's proposed living wage. He said he would not be able to determine how many workers are employed in the three lowest brackets before meetings next week.

While some bottom-rung workers received $1.60-an-hour raises,their financial gains are offset by the district's reduction in the number of working days from 261 to 234.

Anthony Gonzalez, a maintenance worker who earns $6.69 an hour, could be one of those who is penalized for getting a raise. Before the reduction, he earned about $13,968 a year. At the new minimum of $7.11, and working fewer days, he will make $13,309 annually.

He told the board at its August 27 meeting: "When the air conditioning breaks we get bad reports from teachers, prinicpals. If you think our jobs are easy, cut the grass and help us on the rooftops. Give us a decent wage."

Walsh said that since workers don't have to pay for personal health insurance (but they are responsible for the cost of family members), and the state is giving $1,000 to each eligible employee participating in the teacher retirement plan, 91 percent of district workers will receive more pay despite working fewer days. But that is little solace for those workers in the 9 percent — the most financially vulnerable — who will be earning less.

"It's a joke, cutting days and saying it's a raise when we're losing money," said worker José Zimmerle.

Administrators, including the superintendent, also received a 2.5 percent salary increase, boosted some of the district's top brass close to the $120,000 mark. Yet Walch said they will receive a larger salary boost next year because some professional employees are earning $10,000 less than their counterparts in other districts.

Meanwhile, Nancy Lund will still be feeding the masses and Anthony Gonzalez will be on the hot roof, trying to keep the schools cool — for what they could earn flinging brisket.

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