Lawmakers seek to avert cut in teacher pay

December 7, 2013 8:29:40 PM



JACKSON -- When lawmakers mandated that school start later, an unintended result was public school employees perhaps having their August paychecks cut, something the chairmen of the state House and Senate Education Committees say they're trying to avoid. 


"We sure don't want the teachers to be in fear of their checks," said House Education Committee Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon. 


The problem stems from the Legislature's decision in 2012 to mandate that schools start no earlier than the third Monday in August, and it could fuel efforts by some to roll back that law. 


An October attorney general's opinion to Lawrence County School Superintendent Tammy Fairburn states that it violates the state Constitution to pay public employees for work they haven't done. That's a problem because teachers and other school employees are typically paid in equal monthly installments even though most work a 187-day contract. 


Teachers on that contract are paid for just less than 16 days each month. But in 2014, school won't start until Aug. 18. With 10 days of school and maybe three days of preparation, a teacher likely won't have done that much work. 


"A school district may not pay any employee before services are actually rendered or work has been performed," the attorney general's office wrote in a second Nov. 15 opinion to state Auditor Stacey Pickering. "If a teacher or other school district employee works only a portion of the first month of his or her contract, the salary installment for that month should reflect the work actually performed." 


The problem has been ringing alarm bells among teachers' groups. Kelly Riley, the executive director of the Mississippi Professional Educators, sent out emails warning that group's members in August and November. 


"I told my members 'You need to be aware of this situation. You need to plan your personal budget accordingly,'" Riley said. 


Riley calculates that teachers making the state average of $41,814 a year could see their August paycheck fall by $577. They'd be paid the money later, but it could cause a cash crunch for some, Riley said. 


Though the attorney general's opinion cited a constitutional bar on payments, Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said language has been drafted to solve the problem without the need for a constitutional amendment. He said the bill will contain technical language directing the state Board of Education to issue contracts with language stating teachers earn one-twelfth of their salary in August. He said the attorney general's office has cleared the language, the bill has already been prefiled, and he expects action early in the 2014 session. 


If not, pressure could build on lawmakers quickly. 


"It will be a big mess if they don't, and educators will be very unhappy with them," said Joyce Helmick, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators. 


Sam Bounds, executive director of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents, said people who are paid less, such as cafeteria workers, could face more severe impacts. 


State Auditor Stacey Pickering sent a letter to Moore and Tollison in late October informing them of the problem. 


Moore was one of the co-sponsors of the House bill in 2012 to push back the first day of school to a day somewhere between Aug. 15 and Aug 21. 


The law, similar to those passed in other states, is meant to boost tourism spending by encouraging a longer summer. The Gulf Coast Business Council, a Gulfport-based business group, helped push through the law. A 2010 council study predicted later school openings would raise Mississippi tourism spending by $100 million, as well as create another $40 million in indirect benefits. 


Moore noted that schools have been paying teachers over 12 months for many years, including when they started later in August. 


"If there's been a problem, there's been a problem for a long time," he said. 


Bounds, though, said his association will lobby lawmakers to give local districts back the power to set their opening date, even if it's early in August. 


"I think that the start date of school should be a local home rule decision," he said. 


Moore, though, said he thought the problem had been "trumped up" and said superintendents should have talked to him before they started claiming over the summer that teachers might not get paid. 


"I didn't have one school superintendent in the state of Mississippi who had the courtesy to pick up the phone to call me and say we have a problem," Moore said. 


Both he and Tollison said they thought there would be little support to reverse the start date law. 


"They better get over that because I don't know if there's any mood in the House and the Senate to alter that in any way," Moore said.