published Sunday, March 27th, 2011

Teacher raise called ‘unfunded mandate’


by Dan Whisenhunt

BY THE NUMBERS

• $311.8 million: Hamilton County Schools general purpose budget for 2011 fiscal year ending June 30

• $10.7 million: Projected shortfall for fiscal 2012 budget beginning July 1 (March 17 estimate)

• 1.6 percent: Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed pay raise for teachers

• $3.4 million: Estimated cost of pay raises in Hamilton County

• $800,000 to $1 million: Estimated state reimbursement for raises

• 3,515: Number of certified personnel in school system

Source: Hamilton County Department of Education

Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed 1.6 percent salary increase for teachers could end up hurting more than it helps in Hamilton County Schools, with teacher layoffs already being mentioned as an option to offset the $2 million needed locally to pay for the raises.

And even with a pay raise, teachers might not pocket a lot more money. School officials, who already are facing a budget shortfall next year, said one plan for cutting costs includes charging teachers more for health insurance coverage. In some cases, the raises would not cover the increased insurance costs.

The raise is in Haslam’s proposed state budget, which is under legislative review. If the budget is approved with the raises intact, they would take effect July 1. It would be the first pay increase for teachers since 2007.

Superintendent Jim Scales and Accounting and Budgeting Director Christie Jordan told school board members that the increase would cost the Hamilton County school system $3.4 million annually. Jordan and Scales said the state would pay from $800,000 to $1 million and the local system would have to come up with the rest.

“That’s one of those unfunded mandates,” Board of Education member Mike Evatt said. “You get mandated items from the state. It doesn’t normally come along with the funds to do it.”

Johnny McDaniel, director of Bradley County Schools, said if the raise passes, it’s going to present a similar problem for every system in the state. He said he has not determined what it would cost his school system.

The anticipated $3.4 million cost of the raises in Hamilton does not include $2.6 million in annual increases based on experience, schools spokeswoman Danielle Clark said.

According to the Hamilton County Department of Education website, teacher salaries vary depending on experience and education level, from a base salary of $33,659 for a new teacher with a bachelor’s degree to $59,062 for a teacher with 25 years experience and a doctorate.

The raise would mean $538 to $945 more per year for teachers.

Scales said the local share of money needed for the state raises is not included in the $10.7 million revenue shortfall the school system is projecting for the 2012 budget. The school system had planned to hire 55 teachers at a cost of $3.5 million, according to budget documents provided to school board members.

Scales said school officials already are contemplating what the system would do to pay for the increase.

“We’re looking at ways to eliminate some of the expenditures in our budget we have plugged in,” Scales said. “Keep in mind, 90 percent of our money is in people and in schools, 10 percent is in operating costs. [We’re] looking at eliminating positions and programs.”

During a recent board Finance Committee meeting, Jordan gave school board members a list of cost-cutting options. It includes raising the cost of dependent insurance coverage by $50 to $100 per month, which would save an estimated $1.2 million to $2.4 million.

A $50-a-month increase in dependent care costs would total $600 a year. A new teacher’s raise would not cover the higher insurance cost.

A $100-a-month increase would total $1,200 a year and no teacher’s raise would cover that amount.

Board member Linda Mosley, chairwoman of the Budget and Finance Committee, said the school system can’t afford to pay for a salary increase.

“If we have to give the teachers raises, that’ll put us right back down into the bigger hole,” Mosley said.

Board member Rhonda Thurman said the system already has more teachers than the state says it needs, so teacher layoffs are one possible solution.

The system employs 633 people who are paid with local money, because those jobs are over and above positions funded in the Basic Education Program.

“Some would get an increase, and some would lose their job,” Thurman said. “We have to have a balanced budget, and the money’s got to come from somewhere.”

Former school chief financial officer Tommy Kranz said most of the 633 jobs are certified positions, either teachers or others with teaching certificates.

Sharon Vandagriff, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, which represents the teachers, said she has not participated in any discussions about the pay raise. Those would be initiated by Scales, she said.

“He’ll explain to us if there’s some kind of a problem, and we’ll all sit down and come up with a mutual plan, and I’m sure that plan won’t involve laying off teachers,” Vandagriff said.

Haslam’s office did not respond directly to a question about whether the administration had studied the effect the pay increase would have on local school system budgets.

Haslam spokesman David Smith said the governor “proposed the first raise for state employees in four years because if Tennessee is going to have a great education system and hard-working state employees, he believes we could not continue to ask them to go another year without raises.

“It’s less than he’d like to do, but it’s a first step,” he said.

Staff writers Andy Sher and Kelli Gauthier contributed to this article.

about Dan Whisenhunt...

Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...

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