Politics & Government

Big teacher raises on tap for Georgia, but will they stop people from quitting 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 in Atlanta.
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 in Atlanta. AP

Cindy Flesher, the deputy superintendent for Houston County schools, is part of a system that has about 2,250 certified educators.

It would be like a “pat on the back,” Flesher said, for those educators to get the raise proposed by Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. On Thursday, in his first speech to state lawmakers as governor, Kemp unveiled what he called a “down payment” — teacher 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.

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 — classroom teachers and librarians, for example.

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, a figure he mentioned again in the Capitol speech.

The job of an educator doesn’t get any easier, said Flesher, and there have not been consistent raises in pay for years.

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, such as 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.

Bibb County Schools Superintendent Curtis Jones said that recruitment and retention is a problem statewide, Bibb included.

The county employs about 1,500 teachers, 400 certified personnel who are not teachers, such as media specialists and counselors, in addition to about 1,500 non-certified employees.

Typically when raises have been given to teachers, all other employees also receive an increase in pay, Jones said. So, since not all people who work at a school would get a raise on the same scale as certified educators under Kemp’s proposal, “it’s a problem,” he said.

“For us, it would mean we’re going to have to go back and look at our budget,” Jones said.

In Houston County, normally about 93 percent to 96 percent of teachers decide to stay on each year, according to the district. The system has around 2,250 certified employees.

Recruitment and retention is “different for every district,” said Houston County schools Superintendent Mark Scott. “Houston County is fortunate in that area, but not immune.”

He said the $3,000 could be a morale booster for veteran teachers.

After 21-plus years of teaching, those teachers don’t get a raise unless it’s a cost of living raise, Scott said, and those have been “far and few between in the last years.”

But like in Bibb, he’s thinking about employees who aren’t covered as much, or at all, by Kemp’s budget proposal.

“From a historical standpoint, we typically try to give those employees the same consideration that we’ve given our teachers. This makes it a little more challenging where it’s an amount versus a percentage, so we probably would evaluate once we start getting the numbers,” Scott said.

What lies ahead

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 on 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,” she said.

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.

Legislative reporter Maggie Lee began covering the state Capitol in Atlanta for The Telegraph in 2011.