Big teacher raises on tap for Georgia, but will it stop people from quitting the job?

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, center, flanked by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, left, and House Speaker David Ralston, receives applause after he delivered his first State of the State address, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, in Atlanta. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, center, flanked by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, left, and House Speaker David Ralston, receives applause after he delivered his first State of the State address, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, in Atlanta. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP) AP

Naomi Buckner has a foot in two Chattahoochee Valley school systems. She’s the District 4 representative on the Muscogee County School Board and is a special education teacher in Chattahoochee County.

Buckner was happy to hear Georgia Republican Brian Kemp unveil a plan for a “down payment” to teachers. In his first speech to state lawmakers Thursday as governor he proposed raises worth $3,000 per year. The idea is to stop the flow of folks leaving the profession.

“To recruit and retain the best and brightest in our schools, we must remove heavy burdens in the classroom and keep teacher pay competitive,” said Kemp as he announced the raises, which would be part of the state budget starting in July this year.

Kemp said 44 percent of Georgia teachers leave the profession within five years.

The proposed lump-sum raise applies to certified educators who are covered in the state’s education funding formula, for example, classroom teachers and librarians.

Teacher pay varies by district and goes up with seniority and education, but the floor for the newest teachers is a bit over $34,000. So the raise could be something near 9 percent for some teachers.

On the campaign trail last year, Kemp promised a permanent raise of $5,000 per teacher per year, a figure he mentioned again in the Capitol speech.

“The proposed $3,000 salary increase could be an incentive for teachers,” Buckner said. “It is well-deserved, and I believe it should be more, especially when considering all of the things that teachers do. However, I also believe good working conditions are the best way to retain teachers.”

The governor’s announcement was broadly greeted as good news by others in the region and across the state.

“We are more than happy about it,” said Charlotte Booker, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. She was at the Capitol on Thursday too, like many others, watching Kemp’s speech for details.

“Of course we want to see more,” said Booker, “but we would be ecstatic to see the first part of it come to fruition.”

Kemp’s budget also includes 2 percent merit raises for all state employees — so that includes state employees who work at schools but who aren’t certified, like paraprofessionals, bus drivers or cafeteria staff.

But school districts hire more people than the state will bankroll, and schools pay those employees with money raised in the district. Once those locally-paid staff hear their colleagues are getting raises, they are expected by school leaders to put pressure on school boards for the same treatment.

Chattahoochee County’s school superintendent said he appreciates Kemp’s efforts to support teachers and students in public schools.

The raise would be “wonderful,” said David McCurry.

“However, I don’t feel it would have much of an impact on retention rates for rural school systems,” McCurry said.

Every year, Chattahoochee County Schools typically have to replace 15 percent to 20 percent of certified staff.

“Until there’s a plan to create additional funding or incentives for low-wealth school systems, teacher retention will always be a problem and the playing field will not be level,” McCurry said.

Muscogee County School District Superintendent David Lewis said retention rates in the county are in line with similar school districts. He also commended Kemp for making teacher and support personnel salaries a top priority in the new gubernatorial administration.

Lewis said the district will need more details to assess the full impact on the district.

“However, any proposed increase this year would mark the fifth consecutive year that the district has dedicated funding to allow for salary and wage increases,” said Lewis.

Kemp’s proposal now goes to the state Legislature as part of the annual budget process, which will finish on a day yet to be scheduled, probably in late March. The state cost for all the school staff raises will come near $500 million — a substantial new spend in a state budget that totals about $27.5 billion.

Most school boards set their own pay scales, so if the raise is successful in the Legislature, it will then be up to boards of education to formally pass along the money.

Booker also said a couple of other points in Kemp’s budget proposal are important for retention: $30,000 to each school for security and $8.4 million statewide for student mental health counselors.

She said she thinks that when teachers see other people standing behind them, like those counselors, the teacher is more prone to stay in the public school.

And as for security, “nobody wants to go to school and wonder if they’re going to go home,” Booker said.

Overall, she said, “most teachers are just looking for support — not just the money, although the money is great. They’re looking for support from administrators, from the faculty, from the government, from the systems where they are. They’re looking for that time given to them and the respect that all teachers deserve.”

Margaret Ciccarelli too was under the Gold Dome Thursday. She directs legislative affairs for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, a group that represents more than 95,000 educators, administrators and school support personnel statewide.

“We’re trying to figure out, at different points in the pipeline, how we can encourage more inputs and not leak teachers out of our pipeline,” Ciccarelli said. “We do think Gov. Kemp’s proposal goes a long way to shoring up that pipeline, but we’ve got a ways to go.”

One way is to pay mentor teachers more for the duties they take on showing newer colleagues the ropes. Another is to make sure all colleges’ student teaching programs last one year, as some do already. That year is important, said Ciccarelli, “so that potential educators have a better idea what career they’re entering into.”

Another, she said, is to put more money behind Georgia’s “teaching as a profession” program, so that more technical and career schools will offer the set of classes that prepare students to go into education.

She also said that Georgia’s teacher pension program is a strong recruitment and retention tool.

She noted that there has been some discussion by policy makers over the last decade or so of changing that program, hybridizing it or otherwise fundamentally diminishing retirement benefits.

“That would be a mistake for retention,” Ciccarelli said.