The company that manages four state youth lockups slashed teachers' salaries by nearly a quarter on average in July, leaving one treatment facility without teachers, according to an email from the state's juvenile ombudsman.
The state Youth Services Division handed over day-to-day management of lockups in Dermott, Harrisburg, Lewisville and Mansfield to Youth Opportunity Investments LLC on July 1.
Gary Sallee, a spokesman for the Indiana company, wasn't able to provide an exact date for when the pay cuts occurred.
Last year -- before Youth Opportunity took over -- teachers made on average $56,054 per year. Now, they earn an average of $42,900, Sallee said by email.
Youth Opportunity is trying to hire two educators. The group's "education plan" allows for 15 total education staff members across all four facilities, Sallee said in an email.
The company's goal is to have at minimum a special-education teacher, GED coordinator and a third staff member who will coordinate accommodation plans for children with disabilities at each of its four facilities, Sallee said in an email.
The company has "long-term interim teachers" in place until vacancies are filled, he said.
But a report from Brooke Digby, the state's juvenile ombudsman, emailed to the Youth Opportunity president Aug. 11, said that the Lewisville Juvenile Treatment Center had no teachers and "is operating without education at this time."
When Youth Opportunity took over the facilities, the company decided not to hire five previous teachers, and two more left to teach elsewhere, said Marci Manley, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services. The Youth Services Division is part of the department.
Youth Services Division staff members have heard concerns from teachers concerning the pay cuts, and officials are talking with Youth Opportunity about the changes, Manley said.
Sallee said in a phone interview that Youth Services officials suggested the pay cuts during the transition from state management to the company's oversight.
"They felt like the teachers were grossly overpaid," Sallee said.
But Manley said that it wasn't clear that Youth Services staff members ever expressed that "exact sentiment."
Agency staff members did discuss how to best allocate funds, among other matters, a few weeks after Youth Opportunity took over, she said.
Later, Sallee told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that he either misspoke or the reporter misunderstood the division's involvement, stating that the agency was not involved in the analysis or determination that teachers were overpaid.
After discussing the issue further with Youth Opportunity executives, he then said that the state agency provided the company with "information regarding teachers at the facilities."
"Education is an important part of a youth's time with DYS," Manley said in an email, "and the division has set out specific requirements and criteria YOI must meet regarding delivery of general education, post-secondary education (including vocational education programs), and special education requirements."
The state took over management from South Arkansas Youth Services at the start of 2017.
After the state took over, it raised some teachers' salaries. Amounts of raises varied on a case-by-case basis, Manley said.
Youth Opportunity hired Ombudsman Education Services, a division of a third-party group called Chancelight, a Tennessee corporation, to analyze teacher pay, Sallee said.
The Youth Services Division provided the company with the state salary schedule based on experience and education level, Manley said.
"The wages paid by prior management is not a factor in Youth Opportunity's determination of fair and reasonable wages and working conditions offered to qualified teachers... ," Sallee said.
Average salaries for Arkansas public school teachers in the 2018-19 school year ranged from $34,675 to $53,187. The averages varied based on education level, according to data from the Arkansas Department of Education.
Teachers at the lockups were allowed to negotiate salaries based on their education levels, Sallee said.
But for Teresa Addington, who taught special education at the Lewisville Juvenile Treatment Center for about 3½ years, the negotiations didn't provide enough to keep her at the job.
Her first offer was for $10,000 less than she made under the state's control, and even when she negotiated up by $2,000, it wasn't enough, she said.
There were other factors affecting her departure -- some of the boys at Lewisville had started to get into fights, and the commute to her new job at a Texas public school is shorter, Addington said.
Addington said that when teachers found out that Youth Opportunity was taking over, she and others started asking supervisors whether their salaries would change and were repeatedly told that no one knew.
Youth Opportunity told teachers about the possibility of pay cuts June 30, Sallee said.
"I was unhappy about that, but I still probably would have stayed longer had they not cut the salary so much," she said.
In addition to teaching children in special education, Addington was the Virtual Arkansas coordinator at the Lewisville lockup. Virtual Arkansas is an online education provider for schools throughout the state.
As Virtual Arkansas coordinator, she helped kids with whatever classes they were taking online -- from economics to history to psychology, she said.
"It was actually a pretty hectic job just being the facilitator," Addington said.
Rich Huddleston, the executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said it's especially important that teachers in the lockups are well-compensated.
"These teachers are trying to teach kids when they're at one of the most vulnerable points in their lives," Huddleston said. "... In some cases, you've had public schools that they [the kids] have been attending, and the schools have quite frankly given up on these kids."
Huddleston said teachers in the youth jails also have increased responsibility to screen kids for dyslexia and assess their reading proficiency level after Act 189 passed in the legislative session earlier this year.
"I really hope that we're not headed in the direction of cutting services just to ensure that the outside company can make the money that they need to make," he said.
Manley said that Youth Opportunity is putting more resources into treatment and that the company has increased the salaries of direct-care staff members.
"If you're cutting teacher salaries, that's going to limit your ability to attract and retain good teachers, especially in an environment where we need the best teachers," Huddleston said.
When Addington left, she pulled aside each of the boys she taught to explain to them why she was leaving and to make sure they knew she still cared about them, she said.
"It didn't matter to me where they come from or what they did," Addington said. "They were my boys, and they were my kids."
A Section on 08/17/2019