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Published in Print: May 24, 2000, as Ala. Lawmakers Reach Deal On Principal Tenure, Teacher Salaries

Ala. Lawmakers Reach Deal On Principal Tenure, Teacher Salaries

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Alabama Gov. Donald Siegelman claimed victory last week as the state legislature hammered out an 11th-hour deal to gradually increase teacher salaries to the national average and to end tenure for new principals. He is expected to sign the measures into law this week.

But some of the state's education groups charge that the final teacher-pay plan will come at the expense of other needed expenditures. It locks in salary and benefit increases for years that would take more than half of any growth in revenue for state education dollars. "We have sent a message loud and clear that the No. 1 funding priority in Alabama is teacher salaries, not children," said Sandra Sims-deGraffenried, the executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards. "Children are going to get scraps."

Mr. Siegelman, a Democrat, has made teacher-pay raises and tenure changes central to his agenda as governor, and he praised the plan approved overwhelmingly by the legislature on May 15 following tough negotiations.

"It definitely signals a very strong commitment to education in Alabama," said Carrie Kurlander, the governor's spokeswoman. "This is not a political promise. This is a commitment that's backed by law," she said of the teacher-pay plan.

Tenure Changes

Under one measure, tenure would be abolished for new principals, who instead would receive three-year contracts after an initial probationary period. As for teachers, they would retain tenure, but a new reason for dismissal would be added: failure to perform duties in a satisfactory manner.

"We needed that," said John C. Draper, the executive director of the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools, which represents school administrators and others. "Current law required you to prove incompetence. ... It will [now] be easier to get rid of teachers who are weak, mediocre."

The tenure changes reflect a scaled-back version of earlier proposals backed by the governor and the powerful Alabama teachers' union. While Gov. Siegelman said his original plan would make the removal of poor teachers "faster, cheaper, and easier," many education groups were staunchly opposed, arguing that it would instead make the process more difficult. Those groups, however, support the revised plan, which excludes some of the most controversial provisions in the governor's earlier proposal.

"The [tenure] bill is a first step forward," said Cathy Gassenheimer, the managing director of the A-Plus Education Foundation, a group working to improve Alabama public schools.

Union Hails Pay Plan

The commitment to raise state teacher salaries to the national average was welcome news to the Alabama Education Association, which has pushed hard for higher teacher salaries. In the 1998-99 school year, Alabama teachers were paid an average of $35,820, compared with the national average of $40,462.

"This is certainly a historic day for education in the state of Alabama," said David Stout, a spokesman for the AEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association. But some state education groups, including those representing school boards, superintendents, the PTA, and higher education, worry that the plan would cut too deeply into funds needed to meet other critical needs in education.

The plan calls for 62 percent of growth in the state's Education Trust Fund to be set aside for teacher-pay increases and benefits; 41 percent would be reserved for teacher-salary raises until Alabama reaches the national average, and up to 21 percent could be used for benefits, such as retirement and insurance.

The trust fund, which derives most of its revenue from state income and sales taxes, pays for both K-12 and higher education costs. It is projected to contain about $4.3 billion at the beginning of the next fiscal year on Oct. 1 and typically has grown by 4 percent to 5 percent in recent years.

Opponents had backed an alternative bill that set reaching the national teacher pay average as a goal, rather than a mandate.

"It's bad policy ... to lock in that much revenue for teacher pay," said Ms. Gassenheimer of the A-Plus Education Foundation.

Ms. Kurlander, the governor's spokeswoman, said that during final negotiations, a change was made to help allay these concerns. If annual growth in the Education Trust Fund falls below 3.5 percent, the pay provisions would be suspended. At the same time, if growth exceeds 5 percent, the portion of that growth that would be set aside for salary increases would rise to 45 percent and the cap for salary and benefits would increase to 65.5 percent.

Rep. Howard Hawk, a Democrat who chairs the House education committee, said that the pay plan is a good idea and that it would reduce the volatility in compensation from year to year. "We've got to do the things necessary to attract and retain good teachers," he said.

He said the complaints from some education groups were ill-founded, arguing that the raises would not be inconsistent with the overall salary increases seen in the past 20 years.

Meanwhile, the final budget for fiscal 2001, which Gov. Siegelman signed last week, includes a pay increase for next year that won near-universal support from the state's education community. It would boost teacher salaries between 1 percent and 5.5 percent, with higher increases for teachers who have more seniority. Senior teachers' salaries in Alabama lag much further behind the national average than those of new teachers.

Vol. 19, Issue 37, Page 24

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