Parish teachers: Louisiana has a lot to lose with continued low pay

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 4, 2001

VIDALIA, La. – Charles Anderson’s eighth-grade math students recently built mini-replicas of the pyramids in an effort to understand how the ancient Egyptians used math. But they might not have had the chance, if Anderson’s family ties and a love of education had not brought him back to teach in the area

&uot;In teaching, you touch lives,&uot; said the Vidalia native, who teaches at Vidalia Junior High. &uot;And I came back here to teach because wanted to give back some of what I received.&uot;

Still, other career options are in the back of Anderson’s mind, although he can’t see acting on them now. &uot;I could go to Texas and make $35,000 tomorrow,&uot;&160;said Anderson, whose wife teaches in Ridgecrest. &uot;I could take my math degree and make much more in private industry.&uot;

And that, teachers argue, is why it is so important that lawmakers bring Louisiana teachers’ salaries to the Southern average, up from the current statewide average of $32,510 a year.

Otherwise, they say, it will be increasingly difficult for the state to attract qualified, innovative teachers or keep existing ones from moving to neighboring states for more pay.

Lawmakers are tentatively scheduled to meet in special session March 11 to vote on raising teachers’ pay by using gaming revenues and a raise in money the state gives to local school districts, usually to cover operational expenses.

Teachers have won two raises in recent years, according to the Louisiana Federation of Teachers – a $1,200 raise in 1997 and another $1,200 raise two years ago. And proposals before lawmakers in the upcoming session could increase salaries by $3,000, leaving the state average just shy of the Southern average of $35,808.

Right now, Louisiana teachers make an average of $32,510 a year, according to the LFT – a figure some educators dispute as too high. It does not include deductions.

Charles Anderson could tell you that. Since he has been teaching only three years and has not yet earned his master’s degree, he makes about $1,800 a month. But federal and state taxes, insurance and retirement deductions leave Anderson only $1,350. His wife, who has also taught three years, makes the same amount.

Making ends meet for themselves and their three children on that salary, Anderson admitted, &uot;isn’t the easiest thing in the world.&uot;

And for that salary, teachers must spend off hours doing such things grading papers and filling out lesson plans. Anderson spends eight to 10 hours a week on such tasks outside class.

&uot;But I&160;teach the same thing six times, while my wife has to teach five different subjects, so she spends 20 hours a week easily&uot; on such things, Anderson said. &uot;It’s not a 8-to-3 job, like a lot of people think.&uot;

Others, like Vidalia Junior High reading teacher Sarah Cotton, have been teaching too long to quit now.

With more than 30 years in teaching, she has too much vested in her retirement to quit. But she isn’t worried as much about her pay – around $32,000 a year – as she is about the difficulty of recruiting and retaining good teachers in the future.

&uot;Several teachers have already retired early and gone to the Natchez system because they can make considerably more in Natchez than in Concordia Parish,&uot;&160;Cotton said.

Debra Raley, who teaches kindergarten at Ferriday Lower Elementary, said she has seen articles that say up to 46 percent of the state’s teachers could retire now. Concordia Parish’s teachers have been teaching an average of 16 1/2 years – almost enough to retire – compared with the state average of just over 13 years. &uot;But at these salaries, nobody’s coming to take our place,&uot; she said.

Still, it often seems that lawmakers do not care about the situation, Raley said. &uot;It seems like they’ve tried everything else but raising our pay. I don’t understand the problem with giving a raise to everybody else, but not to us,&uot;&160;she said. &uot;We get whatever’s left over. It’s like we’re the last priority.&uot;