Ga. Districts Say Pay Promise Puts Them in a Bind
It seemed like a gift any school district could use: a bundle of state money to give teachers a nice raise.
Instead, officials in Georgia districts are complaining that such an offer has brought them nothing but trouble. In promising the state's teachers a 6 percent raise next year, they say, Gov. Zell Miller has brought their districts layoffs, program cutbacks, funding shortages, and labor strife.
"It certainly put a major stress on us financially this year," Berney B. Kirkland, a spokeswoman for the Gwinnett County schools, said last week.
For a variety of reasons, infusions of new state money place additional demands on school systems' budgets that the new funds do not cover, and the money the state has allotted for the raises is not enough, the district officials said.
That is forcing them to cut positions or programs, offer teachers much smaller raises than they were promised, or ask some groups of employees to do without pay increases, they said.
But Rick Dent, the press secretary for the Democratic Governor, last week accused the district officials of "simply trying to make the Governor a scapegoat for their failure to set fiscal priorities."
The $144 million the state has allocated to pay for the teacher raises is generous, Mr. Dent said. "The state of Georgia is doing its part."
The Georgia Association of Educators also has expressed impatience with districts that have not passed along the money.
"We had no idea that districts would act that way," said Bob Cribbs, the union's government-relations specialist. He said districts have welcomed new state funds for teachers in the past.
But William M. Barr, the executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, said the increase in state funding for teachers has in fact created budget problems for many districts, especially the larger ones.
The new state funds fall well short of paying for 6 percent raises in districts that use locally generated funds to hire additional teachers or to pay their teachers more than the state's base salary, Mr. Barr said.
Extra Costs Involved
Moreover, the state left districts on their own in covering the increased Social Security and Medicare costs that accompany such pay increases. Typically, these new costs would amount to about $173 for each $1,800 raise.
Furthermore, Mr. Barr noted, the state did not provide any money for entire groups of employees, such as secretaries and custodians, that have not gotten state raises in several years.
"School districts feel an obligation to provide cost-of-living adjustments for all classes of employees, not just those the state has chosen to give increases to," he said.
Mr. Dent, however, contended that many of the districts that are complaining about their current budget troubles continue to maintain bloated central-office bureaucracies and have done little to cut such costs.
Mr. Barr countered that "virtually every district in Georgia is operating with as few central-office administrators as they can."
As of last week, the superintendents' group had surveyed 129 of the state's 180 school systems, and found that 76 said they would have to cut their budgets for next year.
The Gwinnett County school system found itself $8.3 million short of funds after the school board ruled out a tax increase.
Parents rallied to protect the 80,000-student district's popular arts programs, and the board chose instead to cut funding for staff development and transportation and to dip into the district's reserve funds.
Cuts Trigger Protests
To give its employees a 3.5 percent pay increase, the Fulton County school board has more than doubled residents' summer-school tuition, trimmed some positions, and postponed replacing 26 school buses, a spokeswoman for the 54,000-student district said.
John L. Balentine, the superintendent of the 11,000-student Clarke County district, said he may be forced to trim 100 employees, most of them teachers, from the 1,750-member workforce so he could give teachers a 6 percent raise.
In Atlanta, 1,400 of the city school system's 3,600 teachers called in sick on May 22 to protest the fact they were not expected to get a 6 percent raise. The 159,000-student district was forced to spend about $95,000 staffing its classrooms with substitutes.
Georgia teachers are paid an average of about $30,000 annually, ranking the state 34th in the nation in teacher pay, according to Mr. Cribbs of the G.E.A., the National Education Association's state affiliate.
The 6 percent increase is the first of four Governor Miller has proposed in an effort to boost teacher salaries to the national average. It would add about $1,800 to the state's average allotment of $30,000 for a teacher.