Georgia governor calls for 3% raises for teachers, state workers

Every year, more than 200,000 Georgia teachers and state employees eagerly wait for governors to announce their budget plans to find out whether they are getting a raise.

Since the start of the Great Recession, they’ve annually been disappointed.

But this year, Gov. Nathan Deal promised Wednesday, will be different.

Deal told lawmakers in his State of State address that he is proposing enough money in the coming year’s budget to provide 3 percent raises. And he warned Georgia school districts that they’d better not take the money he wants to send them for raises and divert it to other uses.

Top lawmakers had much the same message.

“I am going to be watching them, I can tell you that,” said House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “To divert those funds would be very inappropriate and I would not be pleased to see that happen. I will help him watch over that process.”

Deal used the annual address to talk about what he’d like to see done in education, but he also promised a more deliberative process before asking lawmakers to approve the changes he wants to make.

He detailed little of his spending plan for fiscal 2017 — which begins July 1 — other than to say he would request an additional $300 million for k-12 schools. The teacher pay raises would cost districts $233 million.

In addition, state employees would see 3 percent pay raises, and some workers in areas with high turnover would receive even bigger increases.

Deal has been adding money back into the state school funding formula the past few years in hopes of eliminating layoffs and furloughs brought on by the recession.

“With the additional funding this year, furloughs should be a thing of the past and teachers should receive that three percent pay raise,” Deal said.

In his address, the governor expressed appreciation for teachers and state employees. But he also said teachers shouldn’t be insulted by some of the changes — such as merit pay for educators — that are being proposed.

He took a swipe at critics of his plans to change how schools are funded.

“The education of Georgia’s children is too important to be held hostage to a status quo that may feel comfortable to certain adults but is a disservice to our students,” he said.

Ralston called the proposed raises “long overdue.”

So did Georgia Senate President Pro Tem David Shafer, R-Duluth.

“Teachers have a tremendously important job, and during the tough economic times, we had to make cuts across the board,” Shafer said. “But now that the economy has recovered, I think it’s time that we compensate our teachers fairly and adequately.”

The governor’s annual budget pronouncements have historically been a big deal for the state’s more than 200,000 teachers and state employees. Typically, lawmakers approve whatever pay increase a governor proposes.

Since the Great Recession, employees and teachers have gotten little in the way of state-funded raises. Many saw their pay decline because the state and school districts furloughed staffers, meaning they had to take days off without pay.

While Deal included relatively small amounts of money in agency and district budgets for raises last year, some systems said they used the money to add back school days or eliminate furloughs left over from the recession.

In their response to Deal’s speech Wednesday, Senate Democrats made the point that the governor was merely trying to make up for past cutbacks to schools.

“Despite the governor’s assurance today that this is the largest education budget in state history, he is only replacing some of the money that has been cut under years of Republican control,” said Senate Minority Whip Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. “That has resulted in more kids in classrooms with fewer teachers and higher property taxes for homeowners as local school boards raise taxes to make up for the state cuts.”

Angela Palm of the Georgia School Boards Association acknowledged that some districts used the extra money to eliminate furlough days for teachers.

But she added, “Most of the districts now are in a place where they can address salaries.”

John Palmer, a Cobb County schools band director and spokesman for the teacher group TRAGIC, noted that the committee Deal set up to study school funding is recommending changes in how teachers are paid.

“Teachers and state employees who have not seen raises in years will be very appreciative of the extra money,” Palmer said. “We just hope it is not temporary, as one of the major Education Reform Commission recommendations is a major change to teacher compensation.

“Hopefully, local districts will be in a strong financial position to be able to pass along the extra funds in the form of higher salaries. Many are still not able to open their doors for a full 180 days, so that money may not be available for raises.”

DeKalb County teachers are already expecting raises recently approved by their local board, so Deal’s announcement was just icing on the cake.

“Any and all pay increases are welcome,” said Deborah Jones, the president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators. “We have to start respecting teachers for the jobs they do, and not just teachers but every person that works directly with the students, from the bus drivers to the custodians and everyone in between.”

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