State legislators learned Thursday that it would cost $67 million to put all of South Carolina’s school districts back on the same page with regards to teacher pay. During the economic downturn and resulting budget woes from 2009 to 2012, lawmakers gave districts the option to suspend a salary schedule that requires pay raises (known as a “step increases”) after each additional year spent in the classroom.
However, while some districts suspended the pay, others still gave the raises during the recession. That means there are now inconsistent salaries throughout the state. Since the amount a district receives from the state is partially based on teacher’s pay, it has become a major issue.
34 districts waived the step increase for both the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years. 17 were able to pay for the raises through local taxes both years, while the rest suspended the step increase for just one of those years. No districts requested a waiver for the 2011-12 school year, according to the South Carolina Department of Education.
Most districts go higher than the state’s salary schedule in order to stay competitive in teacher pay.
The Education Department’s Director of Legislative Affairs Jay Ragley told lawmakers that it would cost an additional $67 million to put all the districts back on schedule. However, he said Education Superintendent Mick Zais opposes that.
“It’d be unfair to those districts that made the right decision… to give step increases to then go back and bail out those districts that didn’t,” he told members of the Joint Legislative Teacher Salary Study Committee– a special joint legislative committee created this year to look into teacher pay. The committee is supposed to make its recommendations by December 1. It is also looking into possible pay-for-performance options.
However, State Rep. Mike Anthony (D-Union) said the situation is not clear-cut. He pointed out that some of those districts which offered the step increases still furloughed teachers or eliminated educational programs in those years to make up gaps in their budgets.
Education officials warn that the state’s complicated funding formulas mean that recent budget cuts have thrown the entire system into chaos.
“The system is broken in a sense,” said Melanie Barton, Executive Director of the Education Oversight Committee, “If we don’t change the current system, there’s going to be a train wreck down the road.” She called for funding to instead be based on a district’s population. However, she said 40 districts would be “negatively impacted” by a total of $5.3 million.
The committee’s chairman State Sen. Wes Hayes (R-Rock Hill) asked for school administrators, the Department of Education, and other stakeholders to offer ideas about how lawmakers can fix the problem moving forward.
“We need to think outside the box,” Hayes said at the close of Thursday’s meeting, “I don’t know if there’s any really equitable way to deal with getting the school districts back in line with the old system. And I don’t know that we really want to, necessarily.”
The committee will try to meet again in mid-November, he said. However, members have not yet decided on a date.