NASHVILLE — While Gov. Bill Lee is proposing to spend an additional $117 million on educators' pay in his new budget, with his administration projecting it would generate a 4% salary increase, Tennessee Education Association officials say the percentage increase will be less.
The Republican governor announced the proposal Monday night during his annual State of the State address to the GOP-led General Assembly. He called it the state's "largest investment in K-12 teacher salaries in Tennessee history."
But Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association, later said "this investment of $117 million into the Basic Education Program funding formula is not actually going to be the 4% that the governor is projecting for Tennessee's educators."
The Grundy County teacher said "it becomes even more of an issue for those rural districts who don't have the tax base to make up for what the state's not funding." Last year, Brown noted, there was a "lot of talk how much money the state had been sending in state raises over the past five years. And I told them I've not gotten anything."
A major problem with Lee's proposal, Brown and others say, is a 2014 change in the state's State Minimum Salary Schedule. It was pushed by then-Gov. Bill Haslam's administration and his education commissioner, Kevin Huffman, said Jim Wrye, the teachers union's communications and government affairs chief.
Weakening the minimum requirement meant state funding didn't translate into what the public and teachers in a number of rural districts thought it would be, said Wrye, noting the situation persists now.
Brown called it a "really nice talking point, it's a lofty idea that Tennessee's teachers are going to get a 4% raise. But that's not actually going to happen."
She said it underscores the need to revise the state's Basic Education Program funding formula, which distributes state tax dollars for K-12 education across more than 100 school districts, based on a county's relative wealth or lack thereof.
Because rural counties don't have the tax base enjoyed by their urban and suburban counterparts, Brown said, a number of teachers in recent years have received little to nothing in the way of salary increases.
"Our distressed counties are going to have a hard time with it still," she added. "And I know the governor has a heart for those rural counties — and I appreciate that because I'm one of those rural educators."
But Brown said she was pleased by Lee's announcement of another K-12 initiative that calls for addressing the State Minimum Salary Schedule with the governor telling lawmakers he is recommends boosting it from $36,000 to $40,000 over the next two years "so that no Tennessee teacher is making less than $40,000 per year.
"This change to the salary schedule will reward teachers across the state while also making the teaching profession even more appealing to young people considering the high call of becoming an educator," Lee said.
Brown called it "really encouraging that they're going to be infusing funds into the minimum salary schedule. That is going to help. TEA's very concerned about the fact that people are not coming into the profession."
She said in districts such as hers, "you can go 40 minutes in any direction and get between a $4,000 and $10,000 raise and better benefits. Having an increased minimum salary schedule is going to help."
Legislative Democrats, meanwhile, are calling for the state to inject an additional $1.5 billion annually into education. Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said the governor's education proposals don't do enough given booming revenues and state surpluses.
Yarbro said Tennesseans "want to hear a bolder vision," not just on education but other issues.
He said the governor's proposal for spending $600 million in recurring and one-time money for K-12 education — including $250 million in one-time money for a new K-12 Mental Health Trust Fund to help students with assessments and help — is really an "early and modest step" considering the state's education needs and the state government's abilities.
The senator also took Lee to task on health spending, saying a number of things the governor's attempting to do could be achieved by expanding TennCare to an estimated 300,000 adult Tennesseans under the Affordable Care Act. It would help people as well as rural hospitals and providers, Yarbro said.
Lee has submitted a request for a federal waiver of federal Medicaid rules to convert most of TennCare's funding into a modified block grant. Seema Verma, the head of the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, threw that into doubt last week when she announced new guidance to states on block grants. She said the agency is interested in hearing block grant proposals from states that did expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act but only in terms of the expanded population.
Lee says he is hopeful Tennessee's block grant proposal for the traditional Medicaid population remains viable for consideration.
Tennessee lawmakers will begin taking a deeper look at Lee's overall budget proposal starting Tuesday, when the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, hears Lee budget officials make their presentation.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.