By the end of this week, the vast majority of Georgia’s schoolchildren will be back in the classroom and their teachers will have more reason to look forward to payday than when they took a break for the summer.
Teachers are quick to say they don’t get into the profession to get rich, but they don’t take a vow of poverty either.
“As someone who has only worked in the field of education, I’m hoping that this will draw other talented, passionate people to the profession,” said Dominique Nichols, coordinator of the Freshman Academy at Macon’s Westside High School and Bibb County’s 2017 Teacher of the Year. “We need great educators, but I know that oftentimes people’s career decisions rests with how well it will benefit them financially.”
Gov. Brian Kemp pledged during his 2018 gubernatorial campaign to give Georgia educators a $5,000 raise that would lift them from their status as among the country’s lowest paid.
Lawmakers approved a $3,000 raise for the 2019-2020 school year as a down payment on Kemp’s pledge, but challenges lie ahead for state officials’ plan to fund the remaining amount.
Kemp said Friday at an event for grassroots conservatives that lawmakers will have to make cuts to other parts of the next budget in order to add pay raises for next year, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
It will be a tight squeeze to get the extra $2,000 next year with revenues slowing down, said state Rep. Terry England, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. The challenge will be compounded if there is another national economic recession in 2020 as some reports suggest, the Auburn Republican said.
“I have reason to believe that Gov. Kemp intends to bring the remaining $2,000 for teachers in his  budget proposal,” England said by email.
While legislators might need to perform some budget gymnastics to find the remaining amount in a state budget that figures to top this year’s $27 billion, school districts are also stretching to cover the full raises.
The money lawmakers appropriated for raises is intended to go to teachers and other certified staff, but every school district isn’t obligated to spend it that way. And the state dollars do not cover locally funded positions, leaving school administrators and officials to find more money for that.
It will take $597 million to fulfill the full promise of $5,000 raises for 115,000 teachers, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. The price rises to at least $697 million counting the state’s retirement contributions.
The state also gave a 2% raise this year to other school staff, including bus drivers, school nurses and nutritionists. Local school boards have discretion to give a similar raise to paraprofessionals and other support staff.
It is unclear how many of Georgia’s 181 school districts found money for the full $3,000 raise, but anecdotal reports are good, according to the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.
“Most school districts that we know of have done a great job scraping together the first raise to make sure that locally funded teachers and their classified staff receive a raise,” said Margaret Ciccarelli, PAGE Director of Legislative Affairs. “That was a heavy lift in districts, particularly lower wealth districts in rural Georgia, but we see that many have successfully been able to find that money.”
That was the case for the Bibb County School District where school officials said they wanted to be equitable in giving out raises and rewarding employees.
It cost $3 million to give 3,412 employees a one-time 2% bonus in May, according to Bibb’s Chief Financial Officer Ron Collier.
All workers without teaching certificates are getting a 2% raise for the upcoming school year, and the Bibb school district is receiving roughly $5.4 million from the state for the $3,000 salary increase for employees who hold teaching certificates.
Pay raises were also approved in several metro Atlanta area school districts, although not without some difficulties. Atlanta Public Schools, for example, planned to raise teacher pay by just $2,000 late into the budget process this summer before deciding revenues will be enough to pay the full $3,000.
School administrators now hope better teacher retention, more attractive candidates will result from higher pay — and that will translate to success in the classroom.
“It is too early to say, but we believe the pay increases and bonuses do help increase employee morale,” Bibb’s Collier said by email.