AUTHOR: BOBBY

HED:Legislature leans toward higher teacher pay hikes

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON - Momentum appears to be building for a teacher pay raise larger than the planned 3 percent increase.

During the 1999 session, legislators are expected to provide at least a 3 percent raise to conclude a commitment made in 1997 to provide a 10 percent hike over a three-year period.

But throughout the summer, many legislators and others have echoed the theme that the 10 percent raise over a three-year period is not stopping the state from losing teachers to jobs in the private sector and to public schools in surrounding states.

Bottom line

At the current rate, "the bottom line is that the supply of teachers will not keep up with the demand," said Huntley Biggs of Mississippi Power Co., who co-chaired a Public Education Forum committee designed to look at the teacher shortage problem in Mississippi.

The Public Education Forum is a nonprofit group of business leaders and others interested in public education. The group held its annual legislative forum last week in Jackson.

Biggs said his committee determined that 16 percent of the state's 30,000 teachers are eligible to retire and about 30 percent of the state's school administrators are eligible to retire.

"The good news is that not everybody is exercising that option to retire," Biggs said.

But even without those retirements, which eventually will come, Biggs said school districts throughout the state are having a difficult time finding teachers for certain subjects, namely science, foreign language and some maths.

And in some parts of the state - particularly the Delta counties of west Mississippi - schools are having enormous trouble filling all types of vacancies.

Biggs said the result of those teacher vacancies is that a child struggling to read probably would never have the assistance needed to catch up.

Or a student with the aptitude to be a scientist probably never would develop that potential because of the lack of proper instruction in the high school years.

According to figures released last year by the state Department of Education, there were 387 long-term substitutes teaching without a certificate in Mississippi.

And 790 teachers were practicing with an emergency certificate, meaning they had not obtained the proper qualifications. Another 985 were teaching outside their area of certification.

"We believe having a competent, caring teacher in every classroom is the birthright of every child in Mississippi," said Phyfa Eiland of the Weyerhaeuser Co., the other co-chair of the Public Education Forum committee on the teacher shortage issue.

Moving pay up

To combat the teacher shortage problem, Biggs and Eiland called for the state to move teacher pay to the Southeastern average by 2003 if not sooner.

Eiland said the 10 percent pay raise being phased in over a three-year period won't be adequate.

"We in Mississippi must give much larger pay increases than that if we are going to be competitive with our neighbors," Eiland said.

The average annual pay in Mississippi is $28,691 based on 1997-98 figures while the Southeastern average is $34,108.

And Eiland said the average is on the rise because both North Carolina and Georgia have made commitments to reach the national average, which is $39,385. Louisiana has made a commitment to reach the Southeastern average.

As all these states make an effort to increase teacher pay, it will cause the Southeastern average to move even higher. Currently, it would cost a whopping $170 million - in addition to the already committed 3 percent increase - to bring Mississippi teachers' pay up to the Southeastern average.

While there will be an effort to provide more than the 3 percent raise during the 1999 session that begins in January, the increase isn't expected to be enough to bring them up to the Southeastern average.

Realistic goal

Some legislators said a more realistic goal might be trying to reach the average of the surrounding states, which is $32,425.

While legislators are chasing those averages that keep on moving up, they also will be trying to decide what to do with a proposal by Gov. Kirk Fordice to cut the state income tax by 10 percent. The cut would cost the state $100 million in taxes.

Sen. Bennie Turner, D-West Point, a proponent of a teacher pay raise, said it is "absolutely not the time for a tax cut. There are too many important issues that need to be addressed that require money."

Fordice's budget proposal, which he released last week, has funds set aside for the already planned 3 percent raise, but he does not go further than that.

Others believe the state has to.

House Education Committee Chairman Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said in recent years the state has funded some items that were significantly underfunded at the expense of adequate pay for teachers.

Now is the time for the Legislature, he said, to put its top priority on providing a larger pay raise for teachers at the expense of most other pressing issues.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Grey Ferris sees momentum building for a higher pay raise.

"I think you will see efforts (during the upcoming session) for the Legislature to move to unprecedented heights in funding public education," he said.

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