Budget deal includes teacher pay raise

Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- State Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite speaks on a measure on future public school funding on Thursday, at the State Capitol.
Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- State Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite speaks on a measure on future public school funding on Thursday, at the State Capitol.

Public school teachers will see pay raises of about $500 under a budget compromise that won final approval less than an hour before adjournment Thursday, officials said.

The salary increase would stem from a surprising boost of $69 million in state aid to public schools, which was a key part of the late-session agreement on Louisiana’s $25.4 billion operating budget.

Under the plan, half of the money would be used for certificated personnel — teachers and others — and the other 50 percent would be left to the discretion of local school districts.

Rising health and retirement costs would be likely targets for the additional money, said Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers.

Estimates vary on precisely what the aid would mean for teacher pay.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, told senators the increase would total $577.83.

Monaghan said it should total at least $500 and possibly $800, depending on an array of variables.

The $69 million amounts to a 2.75 percent boost, which used to be the traditional amount schools could count on until state budget problems spelled yearly freezes.

The last such boost took place in 2008, which was Gov. Bobby Jindal’s first year in office.

The only hikes in recent years have been to cover the costs of additional students.

The plan cleared its final hurdle when the House approved the operating budget 104-0.

The budget also includes about $45 million for roughly 8,000 students to attend private and parochial schools using vouchers, which are state aid for students who previously attended public schools rated C, D or F by the state.

Earlier this year the state Supreme Court ruled that the state could not fund vouchers through the Minimum Foundation Program, or MFP, which is the funding source for the state’s roughly 700,000 students who attend public schools.

Under the bill approved on Thursday, vouchers would be paid for from the state’s general revenue fund.

The $69 million boost for public schools is a victory for teacher unions, school board representatives and others.

Earlier this year Jindal recommended a virtual freeze in state school aid, as did the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

However, unexpected revenue and late-session budget negotiations paved the way for the increase.

“I believe that teachers and the public school employees have done a yeoman’s job on talking and speaking and lobbying with legislators,” said Joyce Haynes, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, which like the LFT is a teachers’ union.

Monaghan said the aid carries special significance because, along with other actions, the aid makes it more likely that the state will resume yearly increases.

He said, “2.75 percent is back in the conversation.”

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, a key player in the push for the school aid, told the House that he hopes the $69 million is the start of a renewed state commitment to public school support. The Legislature on Thursday passed a proposal by Edwards, House Concurrent Resolution 188, aimed at making sure that this year’s 2.75 percent increase will be part of the base when BESE comes up its funding package for the 2014-15 school year.

The votes were 98-0 in the House and 34-4 in the Senate.

The state has about 50,000 public school teachers.

Average pay was $48,185 per year for the 2010-11 school year, which is the latest available from the state Department of Education. The average for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system was $51,562; Ascension, $48,321 and Livingston, $47,815.

Schools are typically funded through a BESE-recommended resolution, with money going through the MFP.

But a proposed $3.5 billion spending plan died in the Legislature last month amid criticism of proposed changes in how the state would fund special education students.

That means the 2011-12 public school aid funding package will be in effect for the 2013-14 school year. Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said local school districts have missed out on nearly $1 billion in the past four years, in part because of freezes in state school aid.