Teacher pay hikes appear unlikely this fiscal year

Officials suggest BESE won’t restrict use of extra money

“The retirement costs are eating us up.” Michael Faulk, superintendent of the Central school system

Last year, public-school teachers won a surprise, late-session state-funded pay raise.

This year, they may be out of luck.

Gov. Bobby Jindal unveiled his $25 billion operating budget last month for the financial year that begins July 1, including $3.5 billion in state aid for public schools.

The plan features a continuation of the $69 million that lawmakers approved last year, half of which they required to be used for teacher pay hikes.

However, most of the signs this time suggest school districts will be allowed to use the $69 million without any strings, including mandates to boost teacher pay.

“Each district has some very unique needs,” said Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association.

The state has about 48,000 public-school teachers.

The 2014 regular legislative session begins March 10.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is set to finalize its annual school aid request to the Legislature on March 7.

BESE already has endorsed the recommendations of a special school finance task force that said the state’s 69 local districts should be free to spend any additional dollars as they see fit.

“Districts have diverse needs,” said BESE member Jay Guillot, who lives in Ruston and was chairman of the task force.

“To ensure that districts can accommodate these needs, I am recommending that BESE not restrict use of these funds,” Guillot said in a letter to panel members before the final vote.

The president of the Louisiana Association of Superintendents, Patrice Pujol, endorsed the plan.

Michael Faulk, superintendent of the Central school system and former president of the statewide group, said local districts need leeway to tackle issues after five years of near freezes in state aid to public schools.

“The retirement costs are eating us up,” Faulk said.

He said his district, which has an annual operating budget of about $38 million, could be in line for up to $1.5 million in additional aid, including funds for new students in a district with an enrollment of 4,430.

Richard said rising retirement costs are a key concern of local educators and more increases are on the way.

“It is not as high as it has been in the past, but there will likely be an increase,” he said.

The president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, Debbie Meaux, said, in the past when state aid for public schools rose, half the amount was used for teacher pay boosts.

“We do understand that the school systems have been pretty much starved; they do need the money,” Meaux said.

However Meaux said she hopes districts will use some of the funds for teachers to avoid what otherwise will amount to a pay cut.

Salary-related issues have and will cause some educators to leave the classroom, said Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, last month.

Average teacher pay for the 2011-12 school year, the latest available, was about $48,000 per year, according to figures provided by the state Department of Education.

The average salary for teachers in the East Baton Rouge Parish school district was $51,084, 11th in the state; Ascension, $48,508, 19th in the state; and Livingston, $47,613, 30th in the state.

Teachers landed pay raises last year, under a budget agreement that won final approval with less than an hour left in the session.

The Legislature did so by approving a $69 million increase in state school aid, with half the money for teacher and other worker pay increases, and half for retirement and other costs.

While amounts varied by school districts a state Senate leader said the stipend for teachers would total $577.

The $69 million amounted to a 2.75 percent increase in school aid, which was long the minimum increase public schools could count on until budget problems sparked a near freeze for the five previous years.

The money was kept outside the MFP, and the House and Senate approved a resolution urging BESE and Jindal to make the $69 million part of this year’s budget proposal and in the MFP.

That is what the governor did.

“It is an increase for the MFP but not an increase for teachers,” said state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge and a member of the Louisiana House Appropriations Committee.

Jindal is also proposing $26 million in new aid for about 5,300 additional students statewide and $12 million to upgrade high school career education classes linked to high-paying jobs.