NASHVILLE -- House Republicans are turning their thumbs down to a Senate GOP plan that switches the state's Career Ladder pay supplement plan for teachers over to one-time funding.
Representatives said the move would likely result in an estimated 30,000 teachers getting their annual supplements of $1,000 to $3,000 axed in two years.
"The consensus has formed that Career Ladder is something those teachers earned years ago and to cut that down just wouldn't be fair," said House Assistant Republican Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga.
He noted the program has been closed to incoming teachers for years and is "going to go slowly away anyway, and it won't be an issue for too many years as the teachers retire. I think everybody pretty much decided it wouldn't be fair to take that money away after they'd been getting it over the years because that would be an actual pay cut."
The Career Ladder program was passed in the 1980s as a form of merit pay under then-Gov. Lamar Alexander's Better Schools program. Educators who met qualifications received annual stipends. Lawmakers in the late 1990s closed the program to new entrants but left funding intact with attrition via participants retirements ultimately expected to bring it to an end.
But while resistant to touching the Career Ladder, many House Republicans, who have a 50-48 edge over Democrats, do appear willing to go along with Republican senators plan to ax Gov. Phil Bredesen's plan to provide a $113 million in "bonuses" or one-time cost of living adjustments for more than 100,000 state workers, teachers and higher education employees.
"If we're asking the citizens of the state to tighten their belts then the state's going to have to tighten it's belt," said Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge.
Senate Republican leaders offered up both proposals this week as part of a package of cuts and funding shifts intended to avoid Gov. Phil Bredesen's plan to raise about $150 million in taxes or fees to deal with revenue shortfalls.
Democrats have attacked key elements of the GOP plan including the $113 million in bonuses as well as the $34.5 million in Career Ladder funds that would be shifted over to nonrecurring funding and eliminated in two years.
The Tennessee Education Association, which represents teachers statewide, and affiliates such as the Hamilton County Education Association have fiercely opposed cutting the 3 percent bonuses as well as the Career Ladder supplements.
"I've talked to a lot of teachers over the past two or three days and they are livid about this," said the state association's chief lobbyist, Jerry Winters. "I've had several say they feel like they're being used as pawns in a political game."
Closer to home, Nolan Elementary School principal Ken Barker said that while he is retiring next month, he remains "really concerned" about plans to cut the 3 percent bonus as well as career ladder supplements, noting Hamilton County already is hard-pressed to compete with nearby Georgia schools "that can offer much higher salaries than we can."
"A 3 percent bonus for next year sure might help my ability to recruit some people," said Mr. Nolan, who is still hiring teachers before he leaves.
The state has an estimated 60,000 or teachers and other certificated personnel.
Hamilton County schools spokeswoman Danielle Clark said Hamilton County has about 3,500 certificated personnel, which includes teachers, guidance counselors, assistant principals and others who are eligible for the 3 percent bonus.
House Republican lawmakers are also backing away from Senate Republican plans that would cut $6.3 million in agriculture grants.
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Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...