Gov. John Bel Edwards visits board of regents 082218

Gov. John Bel Edwards tells Board of Regents Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018, that higher education remains a priority. But he didn't commit to spending more money on colleges and universities.

Amid teacher unrest and a widening pay gap with other states, Gov. John Bel Edwards plans to recommend an election-year salary increase of at least $1,000 for public school teachers in 2019, officials said Friday.

In addition, the governor's plan would boost the pay of school cafeteria workers and other support personnel by $500 per year, all part of a $114 million package.

Teacher union leaders, long aligned with the governor, are hoping for a bigger pay hike but are working with Edwards' office.

In a surprise, House Education Committee Chairwoman Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, said Friday she would back raises of about $1,800 per year in hopes of getting salaries back to the regional average if it could be done without a tax increase.

"I haven't talked to anybody who would oppose a pay raise," said Landry, who is often at odds with teacher unions and Edwards.

The issue has been the subject of closed-door talks between leaders of the Louisiana Association of Educators, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the governor's office.

The LAE and the LFT, which are the state's two teacher unions, are aligned with Edwards, backed his bid for governor in 2015 and are expected to be key support groups when he runs for a second term next year.

All the pay raise talk is also taking place amid rising demands nationally to boost teacher pay, including strikes that produced pay raises in red states like Oklahoma, Arizona and West Virginia.

LFT leaders said in May that, in a survey of their members, 60 percent said they would favor a statewide walkout or strike to get a "significant" pay raise.

Exactly how much was not spelled out.

Edwards has said for weeks that next year he plans to recommend a 2.75 percent increase in basic state aid for public schools, $75 million. That would be only the second time in the past 12 years that Louisiana would have boosted aid for schools amid recurring budget problems.

If that happens, about half of the money would be used to boost teacher pay by $493 per year for teachers and $240 annually for support workers.

But the governor plans to recommend other money in the state's funding mechanism – called the Minimum Foundation Program – that would raise the total pay raise to about $1,000.

Of that, $28.9 million would boost teacher salaries another $507 and $10.1 million would raise pay for support workers another $260.

Richard Carbo, deputy chief of staff for Edwards, said the governor has made clear that public school aid is his top priority.

Carbo said Friday the governor believes the increases are doable financially amid an improving state economy and additional revenue for state services.

The last time the state boosted teachers salaries was in 2013, and the increases averaged $580.

Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said her members are looking for pay raises of at least $1,200 per year – $100 per month.

In addition, Meaux said any increase should include cafeteria worker, school bus drivers and other support personnel – a possible sticking point in the Legislature.

"We have had some preliminary talks with the governor's office and we have told them we have to have something for all employees, not just certified," she said.

"I don't think we want to place any undue burden on the citizens of the state at this time," Meaux said. "At the same time, we have been in the background long enough."

Meaux did not spell out what she thinks support workers should get in an interview earlier this week.

Louisiana has about 50,000 classroom teachers.

They are paid an average of $49,800 per year, state officials said Friday.

While figures vary slightly, that is about $1,800 below the average of states covered in surveys by the Southern Regional Education Board.

The U.S. average for teachers is $58,064.

After years of trying, state leaders and teachers finally reached the regional average in 2007 under former Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

But it has since slipped below that threshold amid multiple rounds of budget cuts and freezes in state aid.

Landry said that, according to her calculations, a pay raise of $1,850 – a 3.65 percent increase – would get teachers to the regional average again.

She said that would cost the state $105 million per year.

Including all certificated personnel, which brings in principals and others, would cost $124 million annually.

Giving the same, 3.65 percent pay raise to cafeteria workers and others would drive up the price-tag to $170 million.

Landry said she favors strictly targeting teachers for bigger salaries.

Brigitte Nieland, who follows public schools issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said while teachers deserve more money, policymakers should consider raises in targeted areas, such as hard-to-fill jobs and through merit pay.

Louisiana is just emerging from a decade of budget problems, which means there is pent up demand for funding hikes from higher education, health care and other areas.

LFT President Larry Carter, who like Meaux has met recently with officials in Edwards' office, said any increase in 2019 might be the start of a two- or three-year process to again reach the regional average, and boost pay by up to $2,200 per year.

"We are looking to see a groundswell of support not just from teachers but parents as well as community activists," Carter said.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan "Blade" Morrish, R-Jennings, said teacher pay has been ignored too long.

"We don't seem to treat our educators as we treat other professions," Morrish said. "I think we need to encourage people to get into education, and we have to look to opportunities for educators to be compensated."

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.