WDAM Investigates: Teacher paychecks

Updated: Apr. 30, 2019 at 9:14 PM CDT
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HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - For many teachers across Mississippi, the numbers just don’t add up. At least not enough when it comes to their paychecks.

According to the Mississippi Department of Education, the current starting salary for a teacher is $34,390. Although that salary is set to increase slightly this fall, thanks to a $1,500 pay raise approved by state lawmakers, it doesn’t come without some raised eyebrows.

"We think it’s a real slap in the face and an embarrassment to Mississippi because our educators deserve more for the value that they have to the state,' said Joyce Helmick, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators.

Helmick spent nearly 40 years as an educator before taking on her new role as president of MAE. She said that pay raise from lawmakers still doesn’t put Mississippi teachers near the Southeastern average, which is about $51,000. Mississippi’s current average is about $44,000.

While there’s much attention on what the state is adding to teacher pay, individual districts play a role as well, with what are called supplements.

“Unfortunately, some districts do not offer much of a supplement,” said Helmick.

A school district’s budget is mostly determined at three levels, federal money, state money and local money. Those supplements come out of local money, determined by taxes. WDAM requested current teacher supplement breakdowns from every Pine Belt school district to see just how much each district throws in. The numbers are all over the place.

The Hattiesburg and Laurel school districts lead the pack, paying a starting teacher anywhere between $1,750 to $2,050, depending on level of certification. According to records from the department of education, for the 2017-2018 school year, the Laurel School District brought in $13,084,537.07 in local money, Hattiesburg brought in $20,011,982.46. That money is partly used to pay those supplements.

"It's good for a district to say to the teachers that we value you also and so whatever supplement that they can offer is always good," said Helmick.

One of the biggest districts, Lamar County, pays one of the lowest supplements, even though its local revenue source is much higher. The district pays a starting teacher supplement of $650 to $975, depending on certification. The district’s local revenue for the 2017-2018 school year was $33,757,543.91. That’s the highest of any Pine Belt district by far.

Lamar County Superintendent Tess Smith said she finds it hard to entice teachers with that level of supplement. The reason the district pays so little in supplements is because of a budgeting crisis back in 2010, forcing the district to scale back.

"At this point we still owe our teachers back $450 for their supplement," said Smith

Smith said she is working to put that money back into teacher paychecks, but it’ll take time. In providing supplements to entice teachers, how much is entirely up to the district.

When asked whether local school districts should bare a larger responsibility in teacher pay raises, Smith said the problem would be where to get the money from.

“I don’t know where we would get the revenue stream to be able to do these raises on our own,” said Smith.

Helmick agrees and said local money that could be used for supplements is having to go other places because lawmakers continue failing to fully fund state education.

"The funds that they have locally, they're having to fix their buses, fix the leaky roofs, provide resources that they're having to fill in where the state has not provided the funding needed," said Helmick.

The debate over teacher pay is coupled with the fact Mississippi is experiencing what educators call a teacher shortage. Helmick said it’s going to take a concerted effort to get the state’s education system on a track.

"Someone needs to stop and look at it more carefully and stop passing the buck and take responsibility and do what's right for our students and our educators," said Helmick.

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