Cleveland, Tennessee, school board increases pay for teachers, bus drivers

System sets new 2023-24 schedule amid bus driver shortage

Staff File Photo / School buses operated by Cleveland City Schools pick up students at the end of classes at Cleveland Middle School. The Cleveland City School Board has adopted a new schedule for the 2023-24 school year to answer an ongoing bus driver shortage.
Staff File Photo / School buses operated by Cleveland City Schools pick up students at the end of classes at Cleveland Middle School. The Cleveland City School Board has adopted a new schedule for the 2023-24 school year to answer an ongoing bus driver shortage.

Cleveland City Schools board members Monday approved new school start times and hiked bus driver pay in response to an ongoing driver shortage and a survey sent out last month.

The board also increased starting salaries for teachers to $50,000 as part of its almost $60 million 2023-24 budget.

Board members unanimously approved the schedule preferred in a survey by most school families, students and employees, which changes school start times by 15 minutes, according to a Cleveland City Schools news release. The new schedule will go into effect next school year.

"Students at Cleveland middle and high schools will attend class from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. while elementary school students will attend from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m," Cleveland City Schools Director Russell Dyer said Tuesday in the release.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County School district to consider new bus contractor)

In another transportation move, school system officials also voted to sweeten the pot for bus drivers who, according to Dyer, currently were being paid "in that $18 range."

"Our school board members voted unanimously to increase bus driver pay to include the performance bonus in the regular salary, which increases the hourly rate to $22," Dyer said. "This change will keep Cleveland City Schools competitive with rates in other regional districts."

Problems linger

For Althea Allen, a grandmother who lives in Ooltewah and is frequently tasked with getting her grandchildren to school in Cleveland, the new schedule should be an improvement over the current one, which she said causes the children to miss school. She has three grandchildren who ride Bus 35, a bus Allen said sometimes doesn't make its run at all.

"I have two grandchildren that go to Cleveland Middle School and one in Ross Elementary, and starting in the fall, I will have my youngest grandson in elementary, one in high school and two in middle school," Allen said Tuesday in an online message. "I think it will be better than the way things are now. Currently, my grandchildren usually end up missing at least one day a week. I have another friend, and her kids just lost Bus 14. People are missing work, having to reschedule, and if you have more than one child in a different school, oh, my goodness."

Allen believes school officials should try to resolve some of the strain on families for the remainder of the school year by going back to virtual learning.

"It's absolutely awful what we all are having to go through, and the kids are the ones who suffer as always," Allen said. "They need to implement virtual school until this can be resolved completely."

(READ MORE: Abandoned Cleveland, Tennessee, factory transforms into new education model)

Cleveland City Schools does not offer virtual school, according to school system spokeswoman Caroline Corrigan. She offered some alternative ideas for families struggling with transportation issues.

"Doors to our schools open approximately 30 minutes before classes start for parents or guardians who might need to drop their students off early," Corrigan said Tuesday in a follow-up email. "We have after-school programs as well. In addition, there are a lot of options for homeschooling, which can be found on the Tennessee Department of Education's website."

There are still 36 school days left in the academic year. The last day of school for Cleveland students is May 25, Corrigan said.

Teacher raise

Also Monday, Cleveland school board members unanimously approved a $59.8 million budget for 2023-24 that raises starting pay for teachers by at least $5,100 a year from the current starting annual salary of $44,904.

The increase totals $2.4 million in the system's budget for the upcoming school year and is funded without using money from the system's fund balance, Dyer said during Monday's meeting.

The measure includes pay raises for all full-time employees and an increase in the starting teacher salary to a minimum of $50,000 per year, according to Dyer. He said the raise comes four years ahead of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's proposal to bring the minimum teacher salary to $50,000 by 2027.

Dyer said funding for the salary increase was made possible by the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement Act, which Lee signed into law in May 2022.

During Monday's meeting, Dyer noted more than 82% of the school system's budget is devoted to employee salaries and benefits. The system employs more than 850 people, he said.

For comparison, teachers at Hamilton County Schools have a starting salary of $43,132 per year, according to information on the school district's website.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

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