Tension Mounts as More Mississippi Teachers Join Wildcat Strike

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Another 5,000 Mississippi teachers joined a wildcat strike last week as tension mounted in the battle between teachers and politicians over a proposed salary increase.

By Thursday, the department of education estimated, about 9,000 of the state's 25,000 teachers were out on strike and 168,642 students were out of school in 54 of the state's 154 school districts.

Pressure Mounting

The teachers face increasing pressure to go back to work. On Wednesday, the state auditor was ordered to withhold state funds from districts where teachers are on strike. The department of education requested the order so that striking teachers in those districts would not be paid.

In addition, Judge Paul G. Alexander of the Hinds County Chancery Court on March 4 extended through March 12 his preliminary restraining order barring teachers from striking and ordered Attorney General Edwin L. Pittman to begin enforcing it.

Teachers have defied the judge's order despite the fact that they are subject to punishment, including fines, loss of their contracts, or suspension of their teaching certificates. The attorney general has asked school districts to provide lists of striking teachers.

At last week's hearing, Judge Alexander indicated that he considered the teachers to have abandoned their jobs. Under Mississippi law, that could permit districts to fire them.

Possible Impasse

In recent weeks, the disagreement over salaries has reached an impasse. The teachers, who now earn an average of $15,971, are demanding a $7,000 pay raise over the next two years to bring them up to the Southeastern average--a level they say they were promised by the state's Education Reform Act of 1982.

But Gov. William A. Allain has insisted on no more than a $1,500 raise--a figure that would not require a tax increase. According to the Governor, the people of Mississippi--with the lowest per-capita income in the nation--cannot afford to pay more taxes.

He has also cautioned that the state may lose $160 million in federal funds next year under the Reagan Administration's proposals, and that some of those losses would have to be made up with state money.

Despite the Governor's warning, legislators last week were trying to find a compromise that would raise taxes and bring salaries closer to what teachers want.

The teachers have already made it clear that the legislature's earlier proposals, which would provide no more than a $4,500 salary increase over the next four years, are not enough.

Endanger Reform?

Governor Allain is also warning that too big a salary increase for teachers could endanger Mississippi's ability to carry out its education reform.

In 1982, the state received nationwide attention when it passed the Education Reform Act. The comprehensive measure, whose requirements are still being phased in, was designed to improve the quality of schools in a state that ranks last in the nation in per-pupil expenditures and still does not have state-supported kindergarten or a compulsory-attendance law.

In addition to new requirements in those areas, the law called for teachers' aides in grades 1-3; stiffer certification standards for teachers; and a performance-based accreditation system for schools.

Governor Allain has stated that he is fully committed to the Education Reform Act. But he now says that if legislators have to enact a tax increase this year to pay for teachers' salaries, they may use it as an excuse not to fund a statewide kindergarten program next year, which would also be expensive and could require yet another tax increase. The proposal for full-day statewide kindergarten has generated some of the most heated controversy surrounding the reform law.

Beginning of the End?

Meanwhile, teachers in three Mississippi districts--Bolivar Consolidated Number 1, Panola Consolidated North, and Panola Consolidated South--returned to their jobs last week, reported Jack Lynch, a spokesman for the department of education.

"We may be seeing the beginning of the end," he said. "We're hoping that's what we're seeing." Most of Mississippi's schools were scheduled to close this week for spring vacation, and state officials were hoping progress would be made during that time.

But George Brown, a spokesman for the mae, said the union has not changed its position on the salary increase. He added that the court's decision to withhold appropriated state funds from school districts may be illegal, and that union lawyers are looking into the issue.

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