By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – The session was speeding toward a conclusion in 2000, looking as though it would end with newly elected Gov. Ronnie Musgrove’s principal campaign promise going unfulfilled.
Musgrove had promised a multi-year teacher pay raise to move Mississippi teachers to the Southeastern average.
As deadlines passed, it looked as though any chance to enact the $350 million pay raise that would be spread over six years had been lost, leaving many to question if Musgrove could fulfill the promise at any point during his tenure. After all, at no time does a governor have more political capital than in his first year in office.
Both Speaker Tim Ford of Baldwyn and Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck had gone on record saying the state could not afford that session to undertake the expensive endeavor.
Members of the Senate, led by Hob Bryan, D-Amory, were making efforts to insert the pay raise in other education bills that were alive.
“The governor was turning up the heat,” Bryan recalled.
Over in the House there wasn’t much going on. But that changed one afternoon after the House had adjourned for the day when then-Ways and Means Chair Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, was sitting at his desk in the chamber talking to a Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reporter.
When McCoy was asked his opinion of the multi-year pay raise, he said he was like cartoon character Snuffy Smith on the issue. When asked what he meant, he said, “Time’s a wastin.”
A story was done on McCoy’s views that weekend. With a key member of the House leadership endorsing the pay raise, it was surmised that the Senate leaders feared they were going to be viewed as the group blocking what would be a historic salary increase.
The Monday after the McCoy story was printed, Tuck and her leaders held a news conference to endorse a multi-year raise with the caveat that it would take effect only in years when state revenue grew by at least 5 percent.
Musgrove was able to convince legislators to remove the revenue trigger a little more than a year later in a special session.
chasing an average
The pay raise, passed in the 2000 session, did not kick in until a year later in July 2001. Much of the money in the proposal was in the final two years.
In fact, more than half the pay raise was funded after Musgrove left office. He was defeated in 2003 by Republican Haley Barbour, who during the campaign voiced support for the pay raise and did not try to rescind it during his tenure.
In the year before the pay raise was enacted, the average annual teacher salary in Mississippi was $32,866, compared to $37,387 for neighboring states, $39,533 for all Southeastern states and $44,604 for the nation.
When the pay raise was fully enacted, the average salary for a Mississippi teacher was $43,273, but until this day the state is still chasing the Southeastern average, which is an elusive target.
As of the 2012-13 school year, according to the state Department of Education, the average teacher salary is $41,814 annually. For the 2011-12 year, based on information compiled by the state Department of Education, Mississippi teachers earned $41,976 annually compared to $48,090 for the regional average and $56,643 for the national average. Mississippi teacher pay also lagged behind the four neighboring states.
Mississippi teachers, in reality, get a pay raise every year based on experience and education level. A teacher with 10 years of experience with a bachelor’s degree makes more than a teacher with the same degree and fewer years of experience. Teachers also are awarded for advanced degrees.
In general, salaries for teachers with a bachelor’s degree go up $495 for each additional year of experience.
At one point, the step ladder for teachers stopped at 25 years of service, meaning they were not rewarded for years of service 26 and up. But during the 2007 session, the ladder was increased to 35 years. An additional $50.4 million was put into teacher salaries to pay for the increase in the ladder.
Politicians through the years have run on teacher pay raise promises. In the late 1980s, legislation was passed to put teachers on the state health insurance plan. Before then, they were responsible for their own health insurance.
Bryan said at one point there was a ready supply of teachers because most women and minorities were directed into that profession.
“There was a large pool to draw from and you didn’t have to pay much,” Bryan said.
But that started changing in the 1980s.
“More women are CPAs now than men,” said Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson a retired certified public accountant. “The same is true for other professions, too. When I started out that was not the case.”
Brown added, “If we are going to be competitive with other professions in attracting the best to the teaching profession, we are going to have to pay them. There is no doubt about it.”
Gov. Phil Bryant said he wants to end the practice of across-the-board pay raises for teachers. He said they should be paid based on their performance. During the recently completed 2013 session, the Legislature appropriated $1.5 million for a merit pay pilot program in four school districts.
“Rewarding our best teachers with higher pay is the best way to keep great teachers in the classroom,” Bryant said.