Gunn: Teacher pay raises should be up for debate

JACKSON — Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn said yesterday that he wants lawmakers in 2014 to consider the first across-the-board teacher pay raise in the past seven years.

He said legislative leaders have not yet discussed details about how large a raise might be considered.

“A lot of it’s going to depend on how much money is available,” Gunn told reporters during an interview in his Capitol office.

Gunn also said that while he’d like to increase the salaries of all teachers, he’d be willing to go with a merit pay raise if that’s the only option acceptable to Gov. Phil Bryant, a fellow Republican.

Bryant has said repeatedly that he wants to base any teacher pay increases on test scores and job evaluations.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican who presides over the Senate, said he also prefers merit pay raises over across-the-board raises.

“The vast majority of Mississippi school teachers deserve a raise,” Reeves said in a separate interview yesterday. “But there are those that are not performing well in the classroom that do not deserve a raise, and so what I’m more interested in is looking at ways in which to fund programs that help improve student outcomes.”

The last time Mississippi teachers received an across-the-board raise was in 2007, a state election year. Four districts — Clarksdale, Rankin County, Lamar County and Gulfport — are trying merit pay.

The National Education Association, a teachers’ union, said that in 2011-12, Mississippi teachers were paid an average of $41,646, the second-lowest rate in the country.

Joyce Helmick, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, said in the organization wants lawmakers to approve a multi-year plan to increase the base pay for teachers. She said that MAE, an affiliate of the national association, wants the starting pay for Mississippi teachers to increase from about $30,900, to $40,000.

“We just don’t see that there is a fair equitable way to pay teachers on any kind of merit system that is based on tests,” Helmick said yesterday.

Even without an across-the-board pay raise, Mississippi has a salary schedule that gives teachers a “step” increase of $495 a year. Teachers with master’s, specialist or doctoral degrees earn more. Those with 35 years’ experience and a doctorate make at least $64,870, and many districts offer local pay supplements.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said last year it would cost at least $35 million to give a $1,000 pay raise to all certified school employees. That includes teachers, administrators, counselors and others.

Legislative budget writers were told last month that Mississippi’s economy is showing slow but steady improvement and state tax collections are exceeding expectations. However, Gunn said it will be several weeks before lawmakers have a clearer idea about whether those trends will hold. Legislators have an early April deadline to adopt a budget for fiscal 2015, which begins July 1.

The House and Senate would have to agree on a teacher pay plan before anything could go to the governor

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