Teacher raises cut from budget
By: Chris Simones -- Reporter for the Southern Standard
After Gov. Bill Lee proposed a 4 percent pay hike for teachers in February and vowed to make Tennessee the best state in America to be a teacher, the General Assembly passed a budget eliminating pay raises for teachers this fiscal year while adding hundreds of millions of dollars to the state’s rainy day fund.
The rainy day fund allows states to set money aside when revenues are strong and/ or demands are relatively low. States can then tap those reserves when revenues are weak and/ or demands increase.
The pay raise for teachers accounted for approximately $58.7 million in the state’s budget. Tennessee had over $1 billion in its rainy day fund at the start of fiscal year 2020.
“We were holding out hope. I kept hoping beyond all hope and nothing pains me worse than to have to do it this way,” said Warren County Director of Schools Grant Swallows at the School Board meeting in June. Swallows had just asked the board to approve an amended budget reflecting the absence of raises for teachers.
“In the governor’s original budget there was a 4 percent raise for teachers. When all this happened (COVID-19) they dialed it back to a 2 percent raise so we adjusted from there, but at the end of the legislative session they pulled it all out,” Swallows said.
School Board member Teddy Jones said, “I looked over everything but there’s no way to cut anything to put back these raises and I hate it. With that brief statement, I’ll go ahead and make a motion we accept the budget as laid out.”
School Board member Bill Zechman said, “I hope the teachers understand, on the local level we wanted the teachers to have that raise. It was virtually promised to them and then they took away the punch bowl, citing the COVID pandemic and loss of state revenue. It seems to be contradictory to be putting money in the savings account instead of using it for what it was set up for.”
“Teachers are being asked to do things they have never done before and we all know they should be compensated more, even without asking them to do these things,” Swallows said Thursday.
The House had voted for a budget that removed the 2 percent increase for teacher pay but would give a $1,000 bonus to most teachers in the state. The one-time bonus would cost $70 million and would be covered by the rainy day fund, but the Senate eliminated the one-time bonus.
“That bonus was tricky because it was added on the next to last day of the legislative session and without much guidance of how it would happen,” said Swallows. “I think that is why it was ultimately voted down. If they would have once again promised funds for a bonus and then had to take it away because of a lack of revenues then we would have been even more upset.”
The budget the School Board approved in June does include step raises for teachers. “There are some counties that are not even being able to offer those so we do feel fortunate to offer that,” Swallows said. “Step raises are based on a salary scale. Teachers receive a little bit of a raise for every year’s experience and degree they earn. For example, when a teacher has 10 years’ experience and a master’s degree, they make more than they did when they were a five-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree,” Swallows explained.
Nationally, the average salary for teachers is $60,477, while Tennessee teachers earn an annual average salary of $53,980. Four of the eight states that border Tennessee have higher average salaries for teachers than Tennessee which has made it difficult for the state to compete for educators.
Higher level state employees, including the governor, will see raises. Gov. Lee’s salary is $199,000 and his raise will amount to approximately $4,600.