NEW FINDINGS | APS: Teacher raises could be more if city pays what it agreed

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen helps a student with a math assignment on the first day of the 2018-2019 school year at Peyton Forest Elementary school.  AJC FILE PHOTO/ BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen helps a student with a math assignment on the first day of the 2018-2019 school year at Peyton Forest Elementary school.  AJC FILE PHOTO/ BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to sign a state budget Friday that includes a $3,000 raise for Georgia teachers. But Atlanta teachers aren't getting the full pay hike — at least for now — and APS leaders blame the City of Atlanta.

The Atlanta Public Schools budget, which the board tentatively approved this week, gives teachers an average raise of just $2,000 next school year. Several other metro Atlanta districts — including Gwinnett, Fulton and Clayton — plan to pay teachers the full amount.

An average $3,000 teacher raise would cost APS $13.2 million, and it will get $8.9 million from the state. APS planned to use part of a big payment from the city due in about eight months to cover that roughly $4 million difference.

But Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said district officials aren't comfortable counting on the money from the city. The district won't bake the full teacher raises into its budget until receiving reassurance the city will make the payment.

“I know that some of our teachers are angry and upset that we cannot honor this,” Carstarphen said at a meeting this week. “It’s not the board that doesn’t support. It’s not the administration that doesn’t support. It’s not the CFO.”

She added: “We, unfortunately, have not been able to get the City of Atlanta to honor the agreement that we settled back in January.”

Earlier this year, APS and the city signed an agreement ending their fight over the use of future school property tax dollars to help pay for the downtown Gulch project. The city agreed to multiple payments to APS in exchange for some school taxes being included in public incentives for the development.

The agreement called for a one-time $10 million payment in January. APS hasn’t received the funds, which it planned to use to replenish money it has used in recent years to balance its budget. A spokesman for Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said last month the city hadn’t paid the money because of a pending court case related to the agreement.

The deal also includes a roughly $12 million recurring payment first due in January 2020. The school district wants to use that to fully fund the teacher raises and give more generous pay hikes to other employees. Officials said the months-long delay in the one-time payment has made them cautious about planning for future city payments.

APS wants the city to give “full assurance” that it will make that annual payment by setting up a legal process to guarantee it.

The mayor’s spokesman, Michael Smith, said “there is no connection” between the payment agreement and teacher salaries.

“It is unfortunate that the superintendent is attempting to pit teachers against the city,” he said, in a written statement.

Teachers groups called for APS to find a way to pay teachers the full $3,000 raise, as several other metro Atlanta districts have.

“It is unacceptable for the Atlanta Board of Education and its superintendent to use teachers and their much needed raises as pawns and bargaining chips against the City of Atlanta,” Atlanta Federation of Teachers president Verdaillia Turner said, in a written statement.

The Professional Association of Georgia Educators also called on APS to give the full raise.

“While we recognize that each district must consider local economic factors when preparing their FY2020 budgets, PAGE strongly encourages each – including APS – to identify a fiscally sound path that will enable them to fully implement this critically important pay increase,” the group said in a statement.

Teacher pay has been in a national spotlight, prompting protests and walkouts in states including Arizona, Virginia, Oklahoma, Colorado and North Carolina. Research indicates teachers’ weekly wages are generally below those of other college graduates, and an analysis by the nonpartisan think tank Economic Policy Institute found that gap in Georgia, around 25%, is the ninth largest in the country.

Carstarphen said APS will pay the full raises retroactively if it receives what it needs from the city.

Because of how the state funds schools, Atlanta and some other districts don’t get as much money as they would need to fully fund a $3,000 per teacher raise.

Gwinnett, Fulton and Clayton teachers will receive the $3,000 increase, according to preliminary budgets. All three districts said they did not receive enough state money to fully fund the raises but have made up for it with other dollars.

About 95 percent of Gwinnett teachers are expected to also get a “salary step” increase, compensation based on training and experience.

Fulton plans to give a mid-year step increase. Clayton also intends to give teachers a step increase.

Cobb County School District announced last month that its recommended budget included an 8 to 12.6% raise for "non-temporary" employees, including teachers.

DeKalb County School District officials have not said whether the district would add the $3,000 to raises given through a pay rate adjustment approved earlier this year. A 2019-2020 school year preliminary budget summary includes nearly $27 million for step increases.

APS’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is $851 million.

District officials say several factors make the budget tight. The district is projecting a “conservative” 4% increase in local tax revenue next year and is trying to protect its fund balance, a financial cushion it has used in the past to fill budget gaps.

The tentative budget, to be finalized by the board in June, does not use any of the fund balance. The fund balance would be $70.3 million, or about 8.3 percent of expected expenditures.

The actual amount of state funding APS receives is reduced by what’s called the “local fair-share” formula, which distributes money to poorer districts. Other factors such as enrollment changes and charter-school allotments can also impact the state funding amount.

APS expects its state funding next year to increase by $8.9 million, all of which it plans to pass along to teachers. It will cost the district about $9.1 million to give out average raises of $2,000.

Atlanta teachers currently make from $46,460 to $91,688 a year, depending on education degrees and experience. APS said that’s 25 percent higher than the state minimum salary schedule.

Staff writer Marlon A. Walker contributed to this article.

Why it matters

A tentative Atlanta school budget does not give teachers the full $3,000 raise included in the state budget plan. APS says it can’t afford to give the full amount before it gets assurances that the City of Atlanta will make promised payments. The city says that payment agreement has nothing to do with teacher salaries.