September 8, 2018 10:03:45 PM
JACKSON -- Mississippi's governor and lieutenant governor said Thursday that they will support teacher pay raises in the 2019 legislative session, months before state elections, although they didn't provide a specific proposal.
The Republicans expressed support in a series of tweets, saying a reduced deficit in the state-federal Medicaid program allows breathing room in the state budget. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves also proposed raises for state Child Protection Services workers.
"I believe we can invest those resources in Mississippi's future, our children. It's time to raise salaries again for teachers and boost pay for CPS caseworkers next year!" said a tweet from Reeves' account.
"Great idea, Lieutenant Governor. I'm all in," Gov. Phil Bryant's account replied two minutes later.
Spokespersons for both Bryant and Reeves said no plan has been finalized and they expect to work something out once lawmakers convene for the 2019 regular session in January.
Mississippi lawmakers last approved a $2,500 pay raise for teachers in 2014, taking effect over two years. That cost the state roughly $100 million a year once fully in effect. Some teachers and other school employees are also getting bonus payments under a program that sends money to schools that score an A or B on the state's grading scale or improve a letter grade. Including payments going out this fall, the state is spending $46 million on that program over two years.
Still, the National Education Association rates Mississippi last among states in teacher salary. The Mississippi Department of Education says teachers made an average of $44,659 in the 2016-2017 school year, including local salary add-ons. The state mandates teacher pay begin at $34,390 for a new college graduate. Mandated pay reaches above $67,000 for someone with a doctorate and more than 35 years of experience.
Brad Johns teaches high school math at McLaurin Attendance Center in Rankin County. He's nationally board certified and holds a doctorate with 25 years of experience. With a $2,800-a-year boost from Rankin County's local supplement and $6,000-a-year bump from the state's board certification bonus, he makes more than $65,000 a year. Still, Johns said the discrepancy between what he makes as a teacher and what he could make in other fields is "huge."
"It could definitely be better," Johns, a past president of the Mississippi Professional Educators group, said of pay. "We have a lot of teachers that leave over various factors, but pay is one of them."
States including Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia saw teacher strikes in the last year demanding higher pay. There has been little visible evidence of gathering militancy in Mississippi. Some teachers and advocates on Thursday welcomed the proposal but were dubious of the timing, since Reeves is widely expected to run for governor next year.
"Our teachers deserve a pay raise because of the job they're doing, not because we're about to be in a campaign year," said Mississippi Professional Educators Executive Director Kelly Riley.
Joyce Helmick, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, said teachers wouldn't be pacified by a "symbolic" raise.
"Of course the governor and lieutenant governor should support a teacher pay raise, and of course our educators are deserving of a raise," she said in a statement. "They also deserve for education to be invested in and prioritized by their state's leadership."
Attorney General Jim Hood, mulling a run for governor as a Democrat, declined comment. Petal Mayor Hal Marx, undertaking a Republican gubernatorial run, said lawmakers need to address overtesting, discipline and bad school leaders.
"Raising pay every four years in an election cycle is not the way to solve our problems in education," Marx said. "I am a 'Yes, but.' I think there's a lot more that needs to be done."
Finances could still be a challenge. Lawmakers will be asked to contribute $75 million more to employee pension funds because of projected shortfalls. House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Read, a Gautier Republican, also said he fears being "blindsided" by agencies that could overspend this year's budgets, as well as the impact from tax cuts.
"It's possible, but I'm not going out on this limb right now," Read said of a potential raise, saying lawmakers would know more in January.