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Low pay places many Mo. teachers in a difficult spot

Saturday, January 19, 2008

(Photo)
Jim Russell assists GED student Dorrie Jennings
(Photo by Jill Bock, Staff)
A top priority this legislative session is a plan that would increase teachers' salaries

SIKESTON -- During the day, Jim Russell teaches agricultural education at New Madrid County Central.

And two nights a week, he spends more time in the classroom, instructing GED students about three hours each night.

"It makes for some long days and weeks," he said.

Russell is one of many teachers in the state who take on extra tasks at school or additional jobs to help ends meet.

Others work during summer break. Todd Jenkins, a teacher at the Fifth and Sixth Grade Center in Sikeston, has worked the past couple of summers with the district's technology department.

"I like to do it and it's extra cash -- that always comes in handy," he said. "(Making ends meet) can be challenging and difficult at times."

To help eliminate that challenge, the Missouri State Teachers Association is pushing a plan that would raise the minimum teachers' salary from $23,000 to $31,000 in the state.

House Speaker Rod Jetton has placed that amongst the priorities for this session. A report released in December by the National Eduction Association ranked Missouri's average salary of $40,462 for public school teachers as 42nd nationally during the 2005-2006 school year.

Cathey Daniels, a middle school art teacher and the CTA president at New Madrid County Central, said that a petition with 25,000 teachers signatures was presented to Gov. Blunt, asking that some of the $300 million budget surplus be used to increase the starting pay for teachers.

Sheryl Smith, who as the Southeast region field coordinator for MSTA services 33 schools from Cape Girardeau and south, said three-quarters of those schools would benefit by the proposal.

Of course, salaries wouldn't only raise for beginning teachers -- that of existing teachers would also increase accordingly. That would fall on the local tax base, said Russell.

Steve Borgsmiller, superintendent at Sikeston R-6, said there's no way to know whether school districts would be able to make up for that change in wages until the measure is approved and goes into effect.

"You don't know until you evaluate it," he said. But, if the current starting salary of $28,145 raises to $31,000, all other teachers' would go up about $3,000 as well.

"We're going to have to come up with that much more money, and it's going to make it difficult for our district to do that," Russell said. The starting salary at NMCC is now $29,300. "The money is nice, but we've also got to have the money to do that."

But, if teachers would receive higher pay, it would also boost the local economy, Russell said, citing the multiplier effect. "Anytime you put money into the economy, it passes through seven times," he said.

Borgsmiller agreed. "It's a great thing for the community. Everybody is going to be happier."

A problem in this area is teacher retention, said Smith. "Some get their experience here, and then head to higher-paying areas," said Smith. "We would like to be able to keep those that are invested in teaching here."

Jenkins said it could even out some of the competition. "It would help attract quality teachers and kind of level the playing field from some of the bigger cities and districts."

While that may not be a problem in the northern part of the area she services, it is in the southern half, which she attributed to the placement of education institutions. "The further they are from an institution, the more challenging it is to get teachers and keep them in that community," she said.

Borgsmiller agreed. "It's hard to attract teacher to any place," he said. "But I can guarantee you that the further away you get (from education institutions) and in smaller districts, the challenges increase exponentially."

Problems recruiting teachers leads to retirees coming back to teach in some districts.

"But it's not the rule, it's the exception," said Russell. He said some of the more difficult areas to fill are math and science -- where graduates in other industries often make $10,000 to $20,000 more than teachers annually.

Daniels said that is one of the things that does discourage people to become teachers.

"There is no way that a man can come into teaching if he is the head of a household and make a living," she said. Most male teachers, she said, also take on coaching jobs to add income.

She said that a single mother with two children would qualify for reduced lunches on a starting teacher's salary.

"I want to feel like I'm worth something," Daniels said, citing the years of education -- and continuing education -- teachers complete. "I'm taking care of your child for seven hours a day."

And although there are critics who say teachers only work nine months, Daniels said that just isn't true. Teachers spend the summers getting ready for the next school year, and some use that time to take specialization or masters classes, which are becoming more and more necessary to advance.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

The Missouri State Teachers Association is pushing a plan that would amount to a pay raise of nearly 25 percent for starting teachers. Under the plan:

- Missouri's minimum teaching salary would be set at $31,000, in contrast to the current rate of $23,000 annually.

- For the first time, a statewide salary floor would be established, that would gradually rise as teachers gain more experience.

- More than 400 of Missouri's 524 public school districts would have to raise salaries to meet the proposal.

- The plan calls for the state to cover the gap between local schools' current starting pay and the proposed minimums with surplus money in the budget.

The tab is estimated to run as high as $80 million; and some districts would get a greater share of the money than others.