State Board of Education approves minimum teacher salary increase, but not all pay will be raised

PHOTO: G. Tatter
State Board of Education members talk during a meeting on Tuesday in Nashville.

The State Board of Education on Tuesday approved a new salary schedule that raises the minimum annual pay for Tennessee teachers by just under $1,000, but does not translate into an across-the-board 4 percent pay raise for all Tennessee teachers.

Officials with the board and the state Department of Education emphasized that the additional $98 million in state funds allocated for teacher salaries in next year’s state budget will provide districts with additional funding for teacher compensation. However, local districts have discretion over exactly how that money is spent on teacher compensation. For instance, district leaders could use the money to pay for teacher benefits, rather than directly increase salaries.

State officials were optimistic, however, that the money will go a long way toward improving teacher salaries in Tennessee.

“We fully anticipate, especially with the $100 million [that districts] received, that we’re going to come back next year and see a significant improvement [in teacher salaries],” said Stephen Smith, deputy commissioner of education.

Gov. Bill Haslam promised almost $100 million for teacher pay in his annual State of the State address in January, and the legislature approved additional spending of just under $98 million in April as part of the state’s 2015-16 budget. The additional funding was billed as giving teachers a 4 percent teacher pay raise, although its impact would vary from district to district.

The state-approved salary schedule determines the rates of pay to which districts are required to adhere based on teachers’ years of experience and advanced degrees. Districts supplement the minimum with local funding. Since 2007, districts also have been required by law to implement a differentiated pay plan, which allows districts to use anything from student test scores to a teacher’s sponsorship of extracurricular activities in making pay decisions.

With the board’s increase, the state’s minimum annual teacher pay goes from $30,876 to $31,500.

According to data compiled by the Professional Educators of Tennessee, all but four Tennessee districts — in Clay, Hancock, Pickett and Van Buren counties — currently exceed the state minimum. With the increase, two more districts —in Wayne and Cannon counties — will fall below the state-mandated minimum.

State education officials estimate that 27 districts will be required to raise at least some of their teachers’ salaries under the schedule change. Those districts will have less flexibility in how they spend their portion of the $98 million, Smith said.

While Tennessee has increased state spending on teacher salaries by $240 million since 2011, Tennessee ranks 40th in the nation in teacher pay and 42nd in education spending overall as of 2014. Teacher pay ranges from $39,607 in Grundy County to $56,181 in Shelby County, a salary slightly less than the national average. The highest base salary in the state is $46,500 in the state-run Achievement School District for turnaround schools. (See our interactive map of teacher salaries across the state here).

A bill that would have significantly raised the minimum teacher salary across the state was tabled during the recent legislative session, with representatives labeling the cost too high. The bill is scheduled to be discussed this summer during a study committee.

You can find the approved salary schedule here.

The Board of Education will meet again on July 24 at Eastern Tennessee State University.

Payday coming soon

Pension paybacks for Detroit district employees may show up in March  

Thousands of Detroit district school employees may reap the benefits of a lawsuit over pension funding as soon as March.

School employees who worked for Detroit’s main district between 2010 and 2011 can expect refund checks in their mailboxes soon, district leaders say, but making sure the money ends up in the right place will be difficult.

The reimbursements are the outcome of a controversial move during Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration to withhold additional money from employees’ paychecks to pay for retiree health care benefits.

The Michigan Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the state Court of Appeals that the withdrawals were unconstitutional. As a result, the state is giving back $550 million to school employees with interest. The amount employees get depends on what they were paid at the time, either 1.5 or 3 percent of their salary.

While every district in the state is charged with handling the refunds, the Detroit district has a larger burden, tasked with processing 13,416 refunds totaling $28.9 million.

Some of the employees no longer work for the district and do not have an updated address on file, the district said, so employees have been asked to update their information by Feb. 28.

Another challenge: The district is trying to fill five positions in the financial department, the area charged with issuing the checks.

Jeremy Vidito, the district’s chief financial officer, said the state did not allocate extra dollars for additional support staff to help with the task, so the department is working overtime to process the checks.

“It’s prioritizing,” he said. “So there are items that we are going to push back to make sure this happens. It’s also … asking people to do more with less.”

Despite the challenges, the district said it plans to begin mailing checks starting the third week of March.


heated discussion

Aurora budget talks devolve into charter school spat

Aurora Public Schools board of directors and Superintendent Rico Munn, center.

Aurora isn’t facing major budget cuts, and school board members don’t have any significant disagreements with their superintendent’s budget priorities, but that didn’t stop a school board meeting this week from turning into a heated back and forth. At issue: the impact of charter schools, how new board members got elected, and what that says about what the community wants.

Four of the seven school board members were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate, sometimes speaking against charter schools. Many have been wondering what changes the new board will bring for the fifth largest district in the state, and Tuesday’s discussion shined a light on some rising tensions about different priorities.

The budget discussion was the last agenda item for the school board. District staff and Superintendent Rico Munn intended for the school board to provide guidance on whether their proposed budget priorities were the right ones.

Union-backed members who were sworn in in November pressed the superintendent and staff to talk about how charter schools would impact the district’s long-term finances.

“What I’ve always said is that charter schools have a negative impact on our financial model,” Munn said.

Veteran board member Dan Jorgensen asked Munn to clarify his statement.

“I don’t say necessarily it’s negative to the district, I say it’s negative to our financial model,” Munn said. “I just think that’s a fact.”

Then the conversation turned to the community. Board member Monica Colbert, one of the longer-serving board members, said the district is changing whether or not the board agrees because the community is demanding something different. The community “came out in droves” asking for the DSST charter school, she said.

Board President Marques Ivey, who was elected in November, disagreed.

“Not (to) this group that was voted in, I guess,” Ivey said. “I have to look at it in that way as well.”

Jorgensen supported Colbert’s argument.

“I think often times our perspective is also skewed by who we engage with, of course,” Jorgensen said. “But we need to be mindful we are here to represent our whole community.”

He added that a small fraction of Aurora’s registered voters voted in the school board election, saying, “there’s no mandate here at this table.”

When Ivey tried to dispute the numbers, Jorgensen continued.

“It’s not a debate,” he said. “That’s not the point. No one sits here based on — I mean there’s a lot of factors that contributed, like half a million dollars behind us or this or that.”

November’s election included large spending from the union and from pro-reform groups. The union slate of board members raised less money on their individual campaigns, but had the most outside help from union spending, totaling more than $225,000.

“I’m not going to let you get away with that shot,” Ivey said, stopping Jorgensen.

Then another board member stepped in to change the subject and ask for a word change on Munn’s list of budget priorities.

The district isn’t expecting to make significant budget cuts this coming school year, but in order to pay for some new directives the school board would like to see, district staff must find places to shrink the budget to make room.

The proposed priorities include being able to attract and retain staff, addressing inequalities, and funding work around social, emotional and behavioral needs. More specifically, one of the changes the district is studying is whether they can afford to create a centralized language office to make it easier for families and staff to access translation and interpretation help. It was a change several parents and community members showed up to the meeting to ask for.

Board members did not have major objections to the superintendent’s proposed priorities.

During the self-evaluation period at the end of the meeting, board member Kevin Cox said things aren’t as bad as they look.

“We’re building cohesion despite what may seem like heated discussions,” Cox said.

Things could be worse, he added – he’s heard of other groups getting in fist fights.

Correction: A quote in this story was changed to remove an expletive after Chalkbeat reviewed a higher quality audio recording of the meeting.