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Pay scale concerns raised for SLPs in WC Schools

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Editor’s Note: This is the full column from Krista S. Bright. A shorter version was published in the print edition of The Wilson Post on Friday, July 11. 

I am writing in regard to the recent e-mail that I received from Mary Ann Sparks, director of Human Resources for Wilson County Schools, regarding the new pay scale that will be implemented for the 2014-2015 school year. I want to take a minute to advocate for our profession and the reasons why I feel like a base salary of $45,500 for a Speech Language Pathologist (SLP) with no pay bumps, increases, etc., is unfair and not an appropriate pay rate for our profession.

Putting SLP's on an "administrative" pay scale was a step in the right direction. The plain and simple fact is: We are not teachers. I do not have an education degree, I have a Master of Science degree. The degree was 75 credit hours (with 58 of those being graduate hours) with 400 supervised clinical practicum hours across 13 skill levels. I do not hold a teaching certificate. With the State Department of Education, we hold a Professional School Services Personnel (PSSP) licensure in Speech Language Pathology Pre-K-12. We are also required to hold a medical license (so that we can bill for Medicaid eligible children in our school system) through the Tennessee Board of Health for Communication Sciences and Disorders, as well as a National License through the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA). ASHA certification requires that its professionals have met rigorous standards of training and competency and have passed a national examination. My point is, our skill set is different. Our licensure is different. We are different and I thank you for recognizing that with the "administrative" pay scale. 

The proposed pay scale only benefits those of us with less than 10 years of experience. We are not allowed any pay bumps for being a level 4-5 with our TEAM evaluations, yet we go through the same TEAM evaluation process as teachers. I foresee the following issue: Graduating SLP's coming to our district and getting experience and then leaving at the 10-year mark to go to other districts for more money. Or not even choosing our county because they are looking at longevity and for a career, which with such a low base salary, wouldn't be beneficial with someone who is experienced. ASHA has published many documents of salary scales for SLPs serving in the schools and serving in healthcare. 

The profession of speech-language pathology is 81 years old. Those of us in the profession have become a pillar within the diverse communities of the public school systems working with children from all walks of life. We offer the opportunity to maximize the educational potential of students by providing speech, language and hearing services which improve educational outcomes. Our long-standing commitment to enhancing the learning skills of children is well known. There is an urgent need to address this pay issue within our county. I understand that every workplace has its imperfections and challenges. But, as a highly respected school system, we must examine how and why we do things. We owe that to our children. Budget cuts, frozen salaries, caps, etc., has been the basic storyline for Wilson County Schools in my 10-year tenure with the school system. Year after year we hear, "We need to do more with less. Just do the best you can. There is no money in the budget for extra positions or any extra help." I understand that school systems are experiencing more financial demands while the number of children who need special help for speech, language and hearing disorders is increasing at the national level and at the local level as well. The threats to the children are the result of professionals, trained to work with children on language, speech, or hearing problems, who are leaving the public school system due to retirement, unfavorable work conditions, lower salaries than healthcare, and higher caseloads. What happens is the professionals leave our system, and with bigger caseloads spread over a smaller number of professionals will have a negative effect on the children in need. On a direct and indirect basis, the contributions of SLPs far exceed the investment of the public dollars which they are allocated. As a community, we, too, must address the situation head-on and live up to our responsibility to provide our children with the best care and education possible. 

Keeping a 10-year veteran CCC-SLP's pay the same as a clinical fellow (CF-SLP) is not the approach to take. I have recently heard from our county administrators, "We all do the same job," which is not a true statement. The Clinical Fellowship required by ASHA is a 36-week work experience beyond practicum required graduate study. Each clinical fellow is assessed at least three times by the CF supervisor, using the Clinical Fellowship Skills Inventory Rating (CFSI) form, which addresses the CF's attainment of 18 skills, and requires a 30 percent supervisory role from a CCC-SLP. This means that when a CF-SLP is hired into Wilson County Schools, they will be making the SAME AMOUNT OF MONEY as his/her supervisor.

Only a licensed CCC-SLP can bill for services provided to Medicaid eligible children in our county. The services of SLP's to Medicaid eligible children in the public schools are reimbursable so that such funds can help to offset the cost of salary supplements or increases. In fact, 75 percent of Medicaid eligible services in schools are provided by SLP's. Many districts across the country pay stipends to SLP's delivering services to Medicaid eligible children for the additional work required. To my knowledge, district SLPs are the only district employees credentialed to bill for Medicaid services. Physical Therapist and Occupational Therapist are contracted, and School Psychologists and Social Workers do not possess a healthcare license, so they are unable to bill for medical services.

Billing for these services, of course, adds to the workload of the SLP in the schools. ASHA suggested way back before 2002 (Ad Hoc Report 2002) a caseload of 40 maximum. More accurately, "ASHA recommended that school SLP caseloads not exceed 40 under any circumstances dictating a maximum caseload of 35 or less." The Ad Hoc Committee on Caseload (2002) went on to say that the previous statement of 40 students was outdated because it didn't take into consideration all the added responsibilities of the SLP, which is absolutely true. Response to Intervention (RTI), more complex students and diagnosis, and added paperwork have increased the workload of the SLP. "Each student added to the caseload increases the time needed not only for evaluation, diagnosis, and direct and indirect services, but also for mandated paperwork, multidisciplinary team conferences, parent & teacher contacts, and many other responsibilities."

A few years ago, I developed a workload formula to aid special education coordinators in developing a "workload" for the SLP, as opposed to a "caseload of numbers." This has proved to help level the playing field amongst the SLPs in our county, however, many of the SLPs in our county average a caseload of 60-80 with no help, and a few in the 100's with the help of a speech "teacher." A "speech teacher" was the Tennessee Department of Education’s way of trying to alleviate the problem of finding certified Master's level SLPs, so they came up with a way districts could hire a Bachelor’s level individual with a communication sciences background to be supervised at least 70 percent of the time by a licensed CCC SLP to do the "treatment" part of our job, while the supervising SLP diagnosis and writes the treatment plans. These individuals are valuable to us, as they help us get the job accomplished, however, with the proposed pay scale, these "speech teachers" that are a level 4-5 on the TEAM evaluations will exceed our (SLPs) pay rate in a few years. Which AGAIN, means that we will be supervising, evaluating, diagnosing and writing treatment plans, and the person implementing the treatment plan will be getting paid more. Again, this proves that the proposed "pay scale" for SLPs has not been thought through enough for this type of scenario. I am not aware of any other profession where the journeyman gets paid more than the lineman?

In my 10 years with Wilson County Schools, I have seen the district being faced with the difficult task of filling open positions for SLPs. Salary is the number one reason cited for offers declined. Due to the inability to hire staff, the district has been forced to utilize costly contractual-based services. These services are also sometimes difficult to find. Generally, in any given year, we pay $50-80 per hour for a contracted SLP. Employment needs in educational services will only increase along with the growth in elementary and secondary school enrollment of special needs students. Federal law (IDEA 97) guarantees special education and related services to all eligible children with disabilities. This means that districts HAVE TO provide speech/language services to eligible children with disabilities.

Increasing numbers of children with complex disorders, such as autism, traumatic brain injury and swallowing disorders are being served in our schools. These children require intensive intervention that can only be provided by highly skilled, uniquely qualified SLPs as indicated by certification from the American Speech-Language Hearing Association. Just this past school year, a team of SLPs in WCS developed a Policy and Procedural Guideline Manuel for Swallowing Services in our district. All three of us on this team have 40+ years collaboratively in the field.

Data shows that many of the children with special needs have speech, language, or hearing disabilities that can be successfully and permanently corrected with the help of certified SLPs. Without the help of the highly skilled and trained professionals, experience has shown is that a disturbing cycle ensues. Left untreated, children with communication disorders are more likely to perform below their grade level, have difficulty understanding and giving verbal directions; are more likely to be held back, drop out of school, and fail to earn a high school diploma. Such problems severely limit their future. I am confident that we do not want this for the children of Wilson County Schools. The U.S. Department of Education's most recent report to Congress indicated that the number of children with speech, language and hearing disabilities is on the rise. The number of professionals leaving the schools is rising, too. Why wouldn't Wilson County Schools place value on our SLPs and try to recruit and retain the best? We owe this to our children. I have seen the proposed pay for school psychologists in our county, and considering that SLPs evaluate, diagnose AND treat, I am surprised to see that the school psychologists pay is much higher than ours. Again, I don't want to see our names on the school billboard in bright lights, and I am giving no less value to the school psychology profession, because it, too, is highly valued and rigorous as well. Our pay should be, in essence, very similar. 

The final plea is this: "Is this good for our kids? Is the state money and the Medicaid billing money being spent wisely to keep and attract good, experienced SLP's in our county?" Seeing the recent proposal of $45,500 for ALL Speech Language Pathologists in our county, I am not sure we are headed in the right direction. My hope is that the Wilson County Board of Education will reconsider the proposed pay, with some type of supplement for CCC, or increasing the total pay period to a more competitive rate (according to ASHA's most recent salary survey in the schools). The following links from ASHA may give you more insight on what would be a more appropriate pay for fully licensed and nationally certified CCC SLPs in our district. As you can see from the below document, the median salary for 10-month SLPs in the school setting in the Southeast is between $53,000-$58,000, FAR more than the proposed $45,500 for WCS SLPs. The link is http://www.asha.org/uploadedFiles/Schools-2012-SLP-Salaries.pdf. 

Thank you all for your time in reading this column. Thank you for your dedication to the children of Wilson County as well. I hope that you take what I have said into careful consideration, as I am fearful of the path this county is headed if the proposed pay scale for SLPs is approved.

Editor’s Note: Krista S. Bright, M.S., CCC/SLP, is a Speech Language Pathologist with Wilson County Schools at Elzie D. Patton Elementary School in Mt. Juliet.

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Pay scale, Speech Language Pathologist, Wilson County Schools
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