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Gov. John Bel Edwards speaks during his press conference on the state's coronavirus response and recent winter storm recovery at the State Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Sign language interpreter Sylvie Sullivan is at left.

Gov. John Bel Edwards' plan to boost teacher pay by $400 per year got a blistering reception Friday from teacher leaders.

"The governor is being so cheap with these raises that we cannot buy a tank of gas each pay period with his so-called raise," said Keith Courville, executive director of the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana, one of three teacher organizations in the state.

"We keep falling behind," Courville said. "We have got to get better."

Tia Mills, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said teachers were underwhelmed by the proposal.

"Many of them have already done the math," Mills said. "To them it is a slap in the face."

The LAE, like the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, is a longtime political ally of Edwards.

The governor's executive budget was unveiled Friday during a meeting of the powerful Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.

The session begins April 12.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne told the committee that, while the increase would be smaller than in previous years, it would move the state toward reaching the regional average.

Asked about the criticism later in the day, Edwards told reporters he is required to submit a balanced budget amid limited dollars and that he remains committed to moving average teacher pay to the regional average.

Teachers in Louisiana were paid an average of $50,923 for the 2018-19 school year, the latest figures available.

The 16-state regional average was $54,930, a gap of $4,007. The gulf between Louisiana and regional average pay widened 74% between 2019 and 2020. Edwards has vowed to reach the regional average by the time his term ends in 2024.

The U.S. average is $58,540.

Edwards' $40 million pay plan would also include a $200 pay boost for support workers, which is cafeteria workers, school bus drivers and others.

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers, in a note to members Thursday night, called the proposed $400 annual pay hike small.

"Being an educator is harder than ever," the message says. "This year, teacher morale has plummeted. If we don't work to address this now and show our teachers and school employees how much we value their service our schools will only continue to lose talented staff and our students will suffer."

Leaders of the group urged teachers to press the governor, the Legislature and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to support a "significant and sustained" pay boost for teachers and other school employees.

The LFT did not spell out how much that should be.

Courville said he favors a $4,000 per year raise for teachers.

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He also said pay hikes can be justified in the midst of a pandemic amid high unemployment numbers statewide and nationally.

"Teachers are frontline, essential workers," Courville said.

Mills said she also favors a $4,000 teacher pay increase, "that they are awarded for the hard work they have been doing."

Teachers in Louisiana last got a pay raise in 2019 – $1,000 per year.

Edwards proposed a $500 pay hike last year, but it was shelved after the coronavirus pandemic caused state revenue to plummet.

The governor said funds are available this time because of an injection of federal aid for Louisiana's Medicaid program.

The spending plan is for the financial year that begins July 1.

Under Edwards' spending plan, basic state aid for public schools would essentially be frozen, as it has been for most of the past decade.

Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, said he backs the $400 proposal.

“That’s a hard one not to do,” Cortez told reporters after Friday's budget presentation. “I will be 100% for it.”

The governor's proposal marks the start of a lengthy debate that is likely to last until the Legislature adjourns in June.

BESE will submit its own public school budget to the Legislature in the next few weeks.

In addition, the Minimum Foundation Program Task Force, which advises BESE, is set to meet on Tuesday at noon to debate the same issue.

The MFP is the complex formula used to allocate state aid for about 700,000 public school students.

Edwards' proposed spending would also boost pay for college faculty by an average of 4% and would the first of its kind in 13 years, according to higher education officials.

Average pay is 14th in the region for faculty at two-year schools and 15th for four-year colleges, the Louisiana Board of Regents said.

"Today's executive budget sends a clear message: education is critical to our success and now is the time to make strategic investments in our people," Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed said in a statement.

The governor's proposal also includes roughly the same funding for the Taylor Opportunity Program For Students – merit based – and Go Grants – needs based.

Those amounts are $12.2 million and $11 million respectively.

Capitol news bureau staff writers Mark Ballard and Sam Karlin contributed to this report

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.