Support in Legislature to restore teacher bonuses

Action would affect about 2,000 nationally certified Georgia teachers

A fiscal crisis hasn’t stopped lawmakers from promising they’ll fight during the upcoming legislative session to restore 10 percent salary supplements to more than 2,000 of Georgia’s top-certified teachers.

The session begins Jan. 11, about five months after educators who had earned certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards began seeing smaller paychecks because of state budget cuts.

The Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state’s largest teachers group, sued the state over the reduction in pay supplements in October, arguing that lawmakers had no right to cut the 10 percent supplements that board-certified teachers had been promised.

House Rules Chairman Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) agrees, and he thinks the General Assembly will restore the supplements during the session.

“Legally, it is an obligation,” he said. “I think you’re going to see the House Appropriations Committee make the decision to put it [supplement money] back in. Everybody we obligated it to needs to be paid.”

Seeking reductions to balance the state budget last spring, lawmakers cut the supplements almost in half, costing many nationally certified teachers $3,000 to $4,000. For a lot of teachers, that was on top of furloughs and pay cuts local districts implemented.

Jolinda Collins, a nationally certified language arts teacher at Brookwood High School in Gwinnett County, said she understands the state’s fiscal situation.

Because of falling tax revenue during the recession, lawmakers have slashed the state budget about $3 billion in the past year or so. More will be cut during the upcoming session.

Still, Collins said, “To force teachers to take serious pay cuts in this way is disrespectful and unacceptable, especially when some state employees get a bonus.

“Suddenly losing 10 percent of my income that I have depended on for eight years has been difficult. Combined with three days of furlough that we’ve had so far, it’s devastating. My paychecks since August are $450 less than in July.

“I guess the governor and legislators don’t know what it’s like to earn so little money that a 10 percent loss creates a crisis in the household.”

Teachers who earn national board certification in Georgia have been getting salary supplements for more than a decade. They say they were promised a 10 percent pay supplement if they went through the arduous certification process, which can take more than a year and costs $2,500. Their certificates are good for 10 years and can be renewed.

Heavenly Montgomery, a nationally certified teacher who works as a data support specialist at Stonewall Tell Elementary School in College Park, said cutting the supplement sent a bad message.

“We’re already behind as a state, and if we don’t support these teachers, we’re going to stay behind,” she said. “Instructional quality helps close the instructional quality achievement gap.”

Officials with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which has certified more than 82,000 educators since 1995, said some states are rethinking the supplements because of budget constraints. Georgia was spending about $13 million on the bonuses, but lawmakers cut that figure to $7.2 million.

House Education Chairman Brooks Coleman (R-Duluth) said the nationally certified teachers deserve the supplements.

But he said the lawsuit filed by PAGE, the teachers group, may wind up delaying legislative action on the bonuses.

“They are tying our hands. We will have to wait and see what the courts say,” Coleman said.

Tim Callahan, spokesman for PAGE, said there is no reason the lawsuit should stop legislators from approving the supplements. In fact, if they act, the lawsuit will be moot, he said.

“We know of no legal impediment preventing them from doing this,” Callahan said. “For legislators to simplistically claim that ‘their hands are tied’ because of our lawsuit is not helpful.

“One would hope that legislators could simply admit they made a mistake and step up to correct it.”