Top Mississippi lawmakers agree on $1,500 teacher raise

BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images

JACKSON, Miss. — Leaders in the Mississippi Legislature answered the biggest question of their election-year session Wednesday night, agreeing to give public school teachers a $1,500-a-year raise beginning July 1.

House and Senate negotiators filed a conference report late Wednesday to Senate Bill 2770 agreeing to the raise, ending days of negotiations that hit bumps over Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ effort to also push more money into a program to subsidize private school tuition for special education students.

The raise is higher than the pair of $500 increases over two years that Republican leaders had initially proposed, but less than the pair of $2,000 raises over two years that Democrats and teacher groups were still pushing for on Wednesday.

“We wanted it to be as high a number as it could be,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Buck Clarke, a Hollandale Republican running for state treasurer.

Clarke said the higher number became possible after budget writers discovered a calculation error in the amount of money needed for pay increases. They had previously said $51 million was needed to increase pay for the state’s teachers by $1,000 across the board. But Clarke said new calculations showed only $38 million was needed to raise pay by that much. He said a $1,500 raise would cost more than $50 million but less than $60 million.

Democrats said $1,500 was better than the “embarrassing” $1,000 that Republicans had proposed, but said it still wasn’t enough to be competitive with increases in other states, meaning Mississippi could fall further behind regional and national averages.

“While $1,500 is very real money, it does nothing to take our educators even close to the average of neighboring states,” said state Rep. Jay Hughes, an Oxford Democrat running for lieutenant governor. “We are in literal crises and exodus of public school teachers because they are overworked, underpaid and not allowed to simply teach our students.”

The bill would also boost the long-frozen minimum salaries for assistant teachers from $12,500 to $14,000. The Mississippi Department of Education says there are 31,000 classroom teachers and 3,500 assistants statewide. An additional number of other school personnel with educator licenses would also be covered.

Lawmakers are likely to take up the pay raise in the House and Senate Thursday, possibly setting the stage to end the session by Friday.

House members had been fighting with the Republican Reeves for days over his desire to increase funding for a program that pays for special education students to attend private schools. House Education Committee Chairman Richard Bennett, a Long Beach Republican, flatly refused to increase money that had been sought to clear a waiting list, saying the program is set to expire next year and that a legislative review raised questions about its effectiveness. In a statement on the raise Wednesday night, Reeves said “our student achievement is improving because of the hard work of our teachers and I’m thankful for their efforts.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Read, a Gautier Republican, said Wednesday that he considered the new spending plan a “good budget,” in part because it gives raises and increases some services.

Republican leaders in the House said state agency employees who have gotten no pay raises in the last three years will get a 3 percent raise, although Democrats warned that many employees who are still poorly paid may see nothing. Clarke said pay increases would also be provided to some university and community college employees

The overall budget will include more than $6 billion in state revenue and more than $20 billion overall including federal money. Clarke said legislators are likely to increase spending of state revenue by $175 million to $200 million over what was in this year’s budget.

The House on Wednesday passed a number of budget bills. House Public Health and Human Services Committee Chairman Sam Mims said the state Medicaid agency will offer home care services to 921 more elderly and disabled people. The McComb Republican said the Department of Mental Health will offer care outside state hospitals to 126 more people who are intellectually or developmentally disabled. The state Department of Rehabilitation Services will offer home services to almost 200 more people.

The state Department of Child Protective Services, under a federal court order to improve the state’s foster care system, will get one-time money in the current budget year, plus more state tax money and permission to spend more federal aid in the next year.

The Department of Public Safety will get another $3.3 million for its driver services unit, aimed at cutting long lines to get commercial and regular driver’s licenses.

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