State's Shameful Funding Record Adds Up To Low Teacher Salaries

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by Herb Weissenfels
principal, payson unified school district

In recent weeks, a lot of commentary has appeared in the Payson Roundup concerning teacher salaries. There have been several misleading statements presented. I would like to take this opportunity to present the facts and correct some well-intentioned but misguided perceptions.


First, I totally agree with a recent headline that stated "Local teachers deserve much better salaries." This is absolutely true. Payson teachers are undervalued according to the market. Our salary schedule ranks in the bottom third for beginning salaries and salaries for teachers with masters degrees.


My disappointment, however, comes when educated people fail to focus on the real problem rather than making inappropriate comparisons. Arizona ranks 50th in state support per student. Arizona also ranks in the bottom 20 percent for average teacher salaries.


Due to this level of state support, Arizona schools face terrible choices. We can go to a vote of the people to increase local taxes or reduce some programs.


What are some of the misguided statements about teacher raises? Webster defines a "raise," as "an increase in an amount such as in wages or salary." Contrary to some understandings of the meaning of the word "raise" every employee will receive an increase in salary. A salary schedule has never been a "contractual fact."


Every schedule, by law, is subject to a governing board's annual review. Vertical, not horizontal, columns reflect the opportunity for experience increments which is unique to the school environment. Horizontal columns reflect educational advancements.


The Superintendents Advisory Council is a group of people elected by their peers to represent all groups of employees in our district. They work through hours of training, for those who attend regularly, to learn about budgeting.


This year all new additional money was put on the table for their discussion. Principals provided staffing input, not direction. The committee spent many hours weighing options, including at least twice discussing base increases. They are privy to anything in the budget. Unfortunately there was not enough new money to fund vertical movement, horizontal movement and an increase to the base.


After a lot of discussion the decision was made to recommend increasing the present certified staff salaries through vertical and horizontal movement. This averaged about 2.85 percent. Is that enough? Not likely! Yet many schools are giving 1 percent or less.


Due to the governing board's commitment and the knowledge of the potential availability of extra money through Trigger II, the board first explored the possibility of dedicating all of that new money for increasing the base April 10. A motion to accomplish this was passed April 17.


If you examine the legislative calendar, you will see that board action on this item happened before the legislature passed HB 2363. It is not responsible to state that legislation caused the board to act. It was the governing board's dedication to salaries that motivated this action, not legislative actions.


Remember, a few short years ago the legislature passed a 2 percent budget increase with the proviso that no money go to salaries. If we want significant improvements, we must actively support Governor Hull's sales tax proposal -- $210 million to education -- and defeat the legislators' attempt to just give education $75 million as part of the tobacco tax settlement.


What else can be done? Some suggest cutting administrative salaries. These salaries are at the mean, not the top 30 percent of schools our size. With the Trigger II money, virtually every teacher will get a bigger percentage and dollar raise than any administrator. Does this mean teachers will get enough? No, good teachers are worth more.


So where are we now? Arizona teachers are still underpaid. Recruits in other states can start at $30,000 with signing bonuses of as much as $5,000, which is illegal under Arizona law. We can, and perhaps should, consider other options for funding, keeping in mind that salaries and benefits already account for 85 to 90 percent of the budget.


Increase class sizes? Eliminate some programs such as athletics, which is 1 percent of budget, or fine arts, which accounts for 3 to 5 percent of budget? What will everyone agree to? Perhaps less administration and passing much more work on to teachers?


There is no good answer to this dilemma. Governing boards wrestle with these options and many more every year. New sources of money are constantly being searched out. The Superintendents Advisory Council is well trained and highly informed.


I applaud those members who faithfully struggled so hard with the problem of increases. They deserve commendation, not criticism. They wrestled with the realities of school district budgeting.


Let's focus on the real issues. Let's focus on the source of money for schools and demand that our legislators do whatever is necessary to raise us above 50th. The polls can be a powerful weapon. Let's support the governor's proposal. If it doesn't come to a vote of the people, blame legislators, not school boards, advisory committees or administrators.


For more information, I invite you to call or visit. The facts can be enlightening.

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