After years of education budget cuts, Georgia school districts are getting an infusion of funding and rewarding teachers with significant raises.
Metro Atlanta area school systems are proposing to give teachers pay raises up to 8 percent or more starting next fall, the biggest jump in years for many educators following furloughs, stagnant pay and increasing class sizes.
“I feel like this is a positive first step,” said Patrice Dawkins-Jackson, a teacher at Dunwoody Springs Elementary in Fulton County, who’s expected to get an 8 percent raise. “Teachers feel like … they’re severely underpaid. For the amount of work and the importance of the work we do, teachers overall say they feel like we should be compensated at that level.”
With state funding and local property tax revenue on the rise, school systems are choosing to put the extra money toward teachers’ and other employees’ pay. The raises are welcome news after nearly a decade of cuts from the state, though education leaders say the pay bumps are still not enough considering the pressure teachers face with increased accountability standards and responsibilities in the classroom.
Fulton is proposing some of the biggest boosts — upwards of 10 percent when “step” increases for years of experience are added. Superintendent Robert Avossa told board members at a recent meeting that the district — the fourth-largest in the state with close to 96,000 students — is not competitive enough on teacher salaries. He said Fulton is losing talented educators to Cherokee, Forsyth and othermetro counties that pay more.
Fulton’s current teacher salary range is lower than several surrounding metro districts. For example, Atlanta Public Schools currently pays new teachers with a bachelor’s degree $44,312 a year, while in Fulton it’s $40,308.
Among all metro Atlanta workers, of all education and experience levels, the average annual wage is $48,750, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
From 2009-11, teachers in Fulton saw no salary increase or bonus. From 2011-13 they received one-time payments. For 2014-15, teachers received a 3 percent one-time payment.
“It’s a very significant raise, and they deserve it,” Avossa said. “This is a really good start.”
Even after the raises, however, Fulton still lags behind other metro counties. And Avossa, who will be leaving to take a superintendent post in Florida, said he hopes teacher pay is boosted even more down the road. In next year’s school budget, he is proposing to give teachers with 6 to 20 years of experience the biggest raises – 8 percent — because he wants to retain them.
“Those are the teachers we want to keep,” he said. “It takes a couple of years to really start mastering your craft. You start hitting on all cylinders … usually about your fifth or sixth year.
“That level of experience, if you walk out the door, you have to start over again.”
In DeKalb, leaders are proposing 4 percent raises for teachers with more than six years on the job, and 3 percent for those with 0-5 years.
The average pay for current teachers in Gwinnett is slated to rise by about 4 percent. In Cobb, teachers will see a 4 percent raise.
Atlanta Public Schools, with one of the highest pay scales in the metro area, does not expect to give raises. APS’ proposed $695 million budget for the 2015-2016 school year includes increased spending due to charter school growth, and cuts to teaching and support staff in schools and in central administration.
In Cobb, teachers will see a 4 percent raise, after years of furloughs and increasing class sizes. The district also wants to hire 100 more teachers in an effort to reduce classroom sizes.
The district recently held its first job fair in nearly 8 years and received about 1,900 teaching applications. The district is looking to hire about 700 total teachers for the next school year – including the 100 new teachers, according to John Adams, deputy superintendent for Cobb schools.
“We think we can make an impression on class size,” he said. “We think we owe it to our teachers. We are all competing for teacher applicants. When the economy picks up … it does get more competitive.”
“Pay is a huge issue,” he added. Cobb currently pays new teachers with bachelor’s degrees $39,347 a year, among the lowest of the metro school systems.
The average teacher salary in Georgia for 2013-14 was $52,924, compared to the national average, which was $56,610, according to theNational Education Association. Georgia ranks 24th in its average teacher salary, compared to other states.
Between 2003-04 and 2013-14, the average salaries of teachers in Georgia dropped 8.7 percent, according to the education association. Teacher pay nationally also declined nearly 3.5 percent during the same time period.
Georgia’s first austerity cut to state funds for education came in 2003. In the years that have followed, the state’s 180 local districts have collectively been shortchanged about $8 billion, based on the state’s funding formula.
While the state has given more to school districts in the past two legislative sessions to try to make up for the cuts, it still hasn’t come close to filling the $8 billion void.
Like a number of other states, Georgia is grappling with a dearth of teachers and is trying to attract more qualified applicants into the profession. Enrollments in teacher-preparation programs have fallen dramatically in some states in recent years, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Education proponents say teachers need more pay to keep up with the cost of living and because the pressure of their jobs has increased due to more rigorous academic standards tied to high-stakes testing.
“A lot of these new teachers come in and they’re just overwhelmed because so much is required,” said Sid Chapman, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. “It’s (a pay raise) better than nothing, but it’s going to take a lot more to catch up.”
By Rose French
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Yearly salaries for new teachers with bachelor’s degrees in metro Atlanta:
Atlanta — $44,312
Cherokee — $41,915
DeKalb — $41,262
Clayton — $40,742
Fulton — $40,308
Forsyth — $39,990
Cobb — $39,347
Gwinnett — $38,383
Proposed pay raises:
Atlanta — none
DeKalb — 4 percent raises for teachers with more than six years; 3 percent for those with 0-5 years.
Cobb — 4 percent
Gwinnett — 4 percent
Fulton — 8 percent for teachers with 6 to 20 years of experience