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Published in Print: December 6, 2000, as Louisiana Teachers Pressure State For a Raise

Louisiana Teachers Pressure State For a Raise

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Teachers in Louisiana are not letting the Election Day defeat of a state ballot measure designed to raise money for teacher-pay raises deter them. Both of the state teachers' unions have announced plans to pressure the governor and the legislature to come up with money for raises in the coming months.

State and local strikes were under consideration, but will be used only as a last resort, according to Carol Davis, the president of the Louisiana Association of Education.

"Striking is the last option teachers take, and we don't believe we have exhausted all of our options yet," she said last week.

The 21,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association launched a public-awareness campaign last week that includes urging people both to wear yellow ribbons and to e-mail their legislators about the importance of teacher-pay increases.

"We want to let the legislature know we have public support," Ms. Davis said.

She added that local affiliates of the union are also organizing actions such as candlelight vigils, informational picketing, and sick-outs.

Gov. Mike Foster, a Republican, planned to tie a yellow ribbon around a tree in front of the governor's mansion last week in a show of support for the teachers, and he helped the LAE kick off the yellow-ribbon campaign on his weekly radio talk show. "It calls attention to the need and the problem," the governor said.

And Cecil J. Picard, the state superintendent of education, said that he was impressed that the unions had taken a positive approach to drumming up support. "Teachers are working harder than ever," he said, adding that it was important to get the public behind increased salaries.

Local affiliates of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers are also planning actions designed to increase pressure on the legislature, including an effort by teachers to "work to the rule," or refuse to participate in any school activities outside their job descriptions, said Les Landon, a spokesman for the 19,500-member affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

Regional Average a Goal

Both the LAE and the LFT are lobbying to raise teacher salaries in the state to the Southern regional average of $36,000 a year. Currently, teachers in Louisiana earn an average of $32,500 a year, according to the LAE.

"We don't believe we are being unreasonable in asking to be brought to that level," Ms. Davis said.

The LFT has asked Gov. Foster to allocate funds for teacher raises in his annual executive budget proposal. "The only thing that is really important is that there is a pay raise, and that it is in the budget," Mr. Landon said.

But the governor, while supportive of the teachers' goals, says there is not enough money in the $9.2 billion state budget to raise teacher salaries and maintain current spending levels for other services, such as operating prisons and providing health-care benefits for poor residents. "There's not enough slack in the budget to do that," Gov. Foster said in an interview last week.

While most of the country has enjoyed economic growth in recent years, Louisiana's economy has faltered. Because of a state budget deficit of approximately $200 million, Gov. Foster said, officials are facing spending cuts.

So the state will not be able to come up with the money to finance teacher pay raises within existing revenues. "We are going to have to find it externally," he said.

The ballot measure, dubbed the "Stelly bill," failed by a ratio of 2-to-1 last month. It would have raised an estimated $202 million a year that was earmarked for teacher salaries. ("State Voters OK More Spending for Education," Nov. 15, 2000.)

State Sen. Gerald J. Theunissen, a Republican who chairs the Senate education committee, said the defeat was particularly crushing because it had broad support from both the Senate and the House of Representatives. "It was an opportunity to give our teachers a pay raise that was significant," he said.

But the measure's defeat was not due to a lack of public support for teachers, Mr. Theunissen said.

Instead, he attributed it to lack of public trust in the state government. Recent criminal cases involving high-profile state politicians, including former Gov. Edwin Edwards' conviction on charges of corrupting the state's riverboat-licensing process, have led to public unease, the lawmaker said.

"We're not in really good standing with the public, I believe," he said.

Special Session an Option

State law in Louisiana allows the legislature to raise taxes during regular legislative sessions only in even- numbered years. For that reason, the teachers' unions and some legislators have suggested that the governor call the legislature into a special session, presumably before the regular session that is slated to begin in March, in order to consider ways of paying for teacher raises. "Whatever we do will have to be done legislatively," Mr. Theunissen said.

The problem with that idea, said Gov. Foster, is that the state leaders would need a solid plan before he could call a special session. "Plans for money are not easy to come by," he said.

Some legislators are considering restructuring riverboat-gambling regulations to allow such facilities to operate dockside, instead of solely while on the water.

In turn, taxes on the gambling operations would increase, providing money that could be used for teacher salaries, Mr. Theunissen said.

He also mentioned an increase in state taxes on liquor, as well as a change in the taxation of Harrah's Casino in New Orleans, the state's only land-based state-licensed casino, as possible means of raising the needed revenue.

But looking to the gambling industry for more money may not be simple. "That involves a lot of political connotations, and it is not going to be easy to do," Gov. Foster said.

Vol. 20, Issue 14, Pages 17,19

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