By Richard Sullins |

Bonuses for Lee County Schools educators were one of the only relatively non-controversial items on the agenda in what was an otherwise largely contentious meeting of the school board Tuesday night.

Republican Board Member and Finance Committee Chair Pamela Sutton presented details of an Employee Retention Bonus Plan that would provide an additional $2,000 bonus for all certified and classified staff, and up to $2,000 for substitute teachers, with an amount to be calculated based on the number of days they’ve spent in the classroom.

Substitutes would fall into one of four groupings based on their time of service, with the lowest receiving a $500 bonus, the next group getting $1,000, a third group receiving $1,500, and those with the highest amount of service getting the full $2,000. New employees coming on board in January or February would be paid in those months, respectively.

Superintendent Dr. Andy Bryan said that federal funds from the ESSER (Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief) program, part of the $2.2 trillion in funding provided by the CARES Act passed in March 2020. The program is designed to provide relief to elementary and secondary schools that suffered significant impacts from the effects of COVID-19.

The plan will cost $3,313,434.60 for all certified and classified employees, and another $170,715.60 for the substitutes. The total cost for the bonuses is $3,484,150.20.

A secondary purpose of the program is to help retain teachers and employees who have been under tremendous strain since the pandemic began 21 months ago. One factor in offering such financial incentives is that teachers can see other school districts in surrounding counties doing the same.

Bryan said during the Finance Committee’s meeting on December 8 he believes it’s “very important for us to retain our employees and also show them appreciation for all their hard work during the school year and the pandemic. This is another way we can do that.”

Republican Board Member Sherry Womack raised a question why district administrators would be eligible to receive the bonus, comparing it to military combat pay and saying “we are providing bonuses with this to people who were not necessarily in a ‘combat-type’ environment.”

Womack, who ultimately voted for the measure, questioned whether some administrators at the district office who make $80,000 or more per year actually deserved the bonuses because they weren’t “in the trenches” as the battle against the virus was being fought.

In the end, the bonuses were approved by a unanimous vote and will be paid to teachers and staff before the Christmas holiday break.