Louisiana Inauguration

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards takes the oath of office with his wife, Donna, at his side during his inauguration for his second term at the State Capitol.

Teachers are surprised, disappointed and a little irate that Gov. John Bel Edwards omitted a state pay raise for educators in his $32 billion spending proposal.

Rebecca Albert, who teaches physical education at North Corbin Elementary School in Walker, said Tuesday the governor has continued to offer "empty promises" to teachers.

"It is a slap in the face to educators all over the state," Albert said.

"I think the Legislature and the governor have got this idea that we are expected to perform miracles and are left out of compensation year after year after year, and we are tired of it," she said.

Stephanie Underwood, who teaches sixth-grade math, science and social studies at Lancaster Elementary School in Madisonville, made the same point.

"I am a little surprised because of the promises that he made," said Underwood, who is in her seventh year of teaching.

"It is just unfortunate," she added. "We are very upset about it."

Edwards has said for more than a year that he planned to make steady progress toward returning pay to the regional average, and repeatedly said that last year's $1,000 increase was just the first step toward that goal.

The governor said at a teachers' meeting about 13 months ago that he was mapping plans to get pay to the Southern average by 2022.

But his spending blueprint for the legislative session that begins March 9 includes no such increase.

Instead, the Edwards administration said teachers will need to depend on modest raises – possibly around $200 – from local school districts with some of the $39 million boost in state aid for public schools that he proposed.

The announcement landed with a thud among his longtime political allies, including the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators.

One LFT leaders said she was "floored" by the news.

Tia Mills, president of the LAE and a teacher for 12 years, told the Senate Education Committee on Monday that a state pay raise for teachers is "imperative" in 2020.

State lawmakers in New Orleans and elsewhere were said to be getting angry calls from teachers over the news.

The leader of a third teachers' group, the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana, accused the governor of betraying teachers.

"Gov. Edwards promised for years that we would reach the Southern regional average, and he went back on his word during the very first year of his new term," said Keith Courville, executive director of the group.

"Instead of giving hardworking educators the funds that were promised, the governor's office has passed the mandate to district leaders and claimed that teacher raises could come locally but they did not give districts enough money to support raises," Courville said in a statement.

The governor, in comments at a meeting hosted by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, disputed the criticism, noting that in the past two years he will have endorsed giving $180 million more to K-12 education. 

"I also feel very confident that I will deliver my promise, and that is by the time this term is over our teachers will be at the Southern average," Edwards said.

He also said that once the Revenue Estimating Conference agrees on a financial estimate, his team will be looking for ways to provide more dollars for teacher salaries.

The REC, the panel that determines how much money is available to lawmakers and the governor to spend, may meet again in April. Edwards' administration recently failed to reach an agreement with GOP legislative leaders over the forecast, stalling the budget process. 

"So I understand teachers would like there to be a pay raise every year," Edwards said. "That's not what I promised, that's not the reality of the situation sometimes. But we're committed to doing what we can."

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Teacher pay in Louisiana averaged $50,359 per year compared with $52,178 in the 16-state region, according to 2017-18 tabulations, the latest available.

While salaries here rose $1,000 last year Texas boosted salaries by up to $9,000. Teacher pay rose by $3,000 in Georgia and $2,000 in Florida, according to the SREB.

Those gains mean reaching or exceeding the average during Edwards' second term is becoming increasingly difficult, especially amid Louisiana's modest budget outlook.

Robyn Hiestand, who like Albert teaches at North Corbin, said the lack of any state pay raise is especially galling amid day-to-day challenges in the classroom.

"I have 24 students and absolutely no help," said Hiestand, a 20-year veteran who teaches kindergarten. 

She said any pay raise would have helped finance classroom supplies that she and other teachers routinely pay out of their own pockets.

"There is no respect for educators," Hiestand said. "I feel like the governor is playing with us and it is awful and cruel."

The $1,000 pay raise approved in 2019 was the first of its kind in the past decade.

However, the modest  amount sparked comments at the time in light of the financial challenges faced by some teachers.

Albert said last year's $1,000 raise translated into an extra $67 per month.

Underwood said she volunteers for after care, which aids families by allowing students to stay at school until 6 p.m., to supplement her paycheck and is looking for a summer job.

"I tutor as well," she said.

"I have an MBA and could do something else," Albert added. "I love what I do and love making a difference. It is just frustrating."

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, asked Tuesday if teacher pay raises are a big thing for him said, "It is. It's a concern. It's something we definitely need to look at, and I was kinda shocked he (Edwards) didn't include it in there. We'll definitely take a look at it."

But Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, said Edwards' decision not to push a teacher pay raise makes sense.

"I think quite frankly he might have been wise in doing that (leaving out teacher pay raises) and giving more autonomy to the locals," said Cortez, who like Schexnayder was at the LABI gathering.

"That's what we do with the MFP, we give it to them in a block grant and locally in my area we have sales taxes that are dedicated directly to teacher pay raises," he said.

The MFP is the Minimum Foundation Program, the mechanism used to funnel nearly $4 billion in annual state aid to school districts.

Joni Smith, 2017 state Teacher of the Year, said in an email "promises made should be promises kept!"

"As an educator, I proudly teach my students that their actions should speaker louder than their words."

"Our governor should lead by example," said Smith, who is an administrative assistant at Westside Junior High School in Walker.

Edwards proposed his $1,000 increase in 2018 at a time when teacher walkouts dominated headlines in Oklahoma, West Virginia, and elsewhere.

Teacher leaders have said educators in Louisiana want assurances their own pay is on the rise to avoid similar work actions here.

"Nothing is going to change unless something drastic happens," Albert said.

"Something drastic has to happen for the politicians, for the Legislature and the governor, to wake up."

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.