Kemp seeks support for teacher pay raise during Cobb school visit

Gov. Brian Kemp talks about his budget proposal, including a $2,000 teacher pay raise, before a tour of McEachern High School in Powder Springs on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. REBECCA WRIGHT / FOR THE AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp talks about his budget proposal, including a $2,000 teacher pay raise, before a tour of McEachern High School in Powder Springs on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. REBECCA WRIGHT / FOR THE AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp traveled to Cobb County Thursday to tour a high school and to bolster public support for his proposed pay raise for teachers.

After getting the General Assembly to back a raise last year, Kemp is pushing for another $2,000 to complete a 2018 campaign pledge.

But fellow Republican and state House Speaker David Ralston has his own goals for the 2021 budget and has said a raise for teachers may have to wait. The state likely cannot afford both that and an income tax cut that many lawmakers want.

The impasse has led to a legislative shutdown that Ralston called last week to work on the budget.

On Thursday, Kemp toured McEachern High School in Cobb County, which has a new nurse prep program. It was a friendly venue to tout his legislative agenda, including the raise.

Under his budget proposal, the state would, for the third year in a row, pay the maximum in the school funding formula. And Kemp is budgeting more than $350 million more “to deliver the promise of the $5,000 pay raise that I campaigned on,” he said during the school visit.

Standing in front of cameras and flanked by educators, students, lawmakers and other officials, the governor said 44% of Georgia teachers leave the profession within their first five years.

“Those in this room know we have a serious teacher retention problem that requires our immediate attention,” he said. “I believe this well-deserved pay raise will go a long way to incentivizing our best and brightest to stay in the classroom.”

He is also budgeting millions more to give other school employees raises.

It may not sound like much in a $28 billion budget, but a lot of that money is already spoken for. The overall education allocation alone consumes more than a third of the total, at nearly $11 billion. Health care and other costs consume much of the rest.

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks to McEachern High School Principal Regina Montgomery and Cobb County Superintendent Chris Ragsdale during a tour of McEachern High School in Powder Springs on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.

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Lawmakers have their own plans for the remaining discretionary dollars. In 2018, they cut the top income tax rate from 6% to 5.75%, and planned to reduce it further this year to 5.5%.

That 2018 reduction played a role in Kemp’s demand for budget cuts this year and next. His budget doesn’t contemplate the extra quarter percentage point tax cut that Ralston wants, and the money would have to come from somewhere.

Last week, after Ralston called a halt to the legislative session, he described the raise as "a big, big ticket" item and said the tax cut "was a commitment that we made to the taxpayers of Georgia. … We had always planned to do the second step this year." The next day, he said he understood Kemp wanted to keep his campaign promise and that he didn't disagree with the goal. He said he wasn't saying "no" to the raise. "It may just be saying 'not now.'"

Kemp’s decision to take his campaign on the road suggests he wants leverage in negotiations with Ralston, said Brandon Phillips, a Republican strategist. In his first year in office, Kemp traveled across the state to meet with teachers and school administrators. It’s a meet-the-people style that makes Phillips think of President Donald Trump, whose election campaign he managed in Georgia.

"I think our governor has found success and likes being out on the trail," Phillips said. "I think he's using all the levers he can find." He said it's unclear which is more popular, a tax cut or a teacher pay raise, but added that Kemp did campaign hard on the pay raise and won statewide and, as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last month, his poll numbers have risen considerably since his election.

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Lawmakers who previously found it difficult to get financial information from the Kemp administration have found a “renewed spirit of cooperation” during the legislative break, said Kaleb McMichen, Ralston’s spokesman. With that cooperation, they have discovered even more budgetary needs, such as a 95% turnover rate among correctional officers, GBI scientists to process sexual assault evidence, food inspectors and mental health professionals.

“The speaker agrees with the governor, in principle, that teachers deserve a further raise, but the budget process is about balancing priorities with critical needs,” McMichen said.

Kemp has a ready-made network to support his pay initiative.

The Professional Association of Georgia Educators has been encouraging its 97,000 members to pepper Ralston’s colleagues in the House of Representatives with emails and phone calls in favor.

Next week, as the legislative session resumes, that group and others will be hosting member visits to the Gold Dome. It’s an annual show of force, when teachers meet lawmakers and lawmakers, who will be up for reelection later in the year, try to make a good impression.

“I suspect that advocacy in support of the pay raise will intensify next week,” said Margaret Ciccarelli, the group’s chief lobbyist.

In a survey of association members last year, compensation was the No. 1 concern, she said.

The $3,000 pay raise granted last year, and the promise of more to come, may already be having an effect, at least with older teachers.

“Great teachers who may have retired are staying,” said Regina Montgomery, the McEachern principal.

Gov. Brian Kemp watches a student print a T-shirt using a screen printing press during a tour of McEachern High School in Powder Springs on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. REBECCA WRIGHT / FOR THE AJC

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Teacher pensions are based on the final two years of pay, so to capitalize on the recent increase, teachers need to stick around.

L.C. (Buster) Evans, executive director of the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia, said the number of teachers who retire statewide had been growing by 200 or 300 a year — until now. So far this year, retirements have actually dropped by a hundred, he said, and he surmises it is because teachers want these raises reflected in their pension checks.

“I really think it’s one of those things that’s an unintended consequence,” he said. “People like making more money.”

Cobb Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said his district used last year’s $3,000 raise to supplement local funding that gave teachers the biggest pay raise in district history.

Dave Shuler, 65, is an automotive instructor at McEachern who can retire next fall, and probably will. His body can’t take the work anymore, he said, and the pay raise doesn’t change that. Even so, it’s been nice to have the extra $300 or so a month.

“My wife really loves it,” he said.

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