County teachers union voting on $1.3 equity pay distribution

By Thomas Wilson

   Carter County's teachers are getting a raise from the state.
   A little local respect to go with it wouldn't hurt, say some teachers. Carter County Education Association representatives met with a handful of county teachers at Happy Valley High School Thursday morning to discuss the agreement appropriating the $1.3 million the county received as part of the governor's teacher equity plan.
   CCEA President Sonja Culler and the union's chief negotiator Larry Heaton told the handful of teachers attending that the funding would not be factored into teachers' existing salary scale next year.
   "We will be negotiating for the next raise each year," she said. "This is not a one-time thing."
   Governor Phil Bredesen announced in February a two-part program to address teacher pay issues in Tennessee, including a commitment to fund an initial $26.7 million package. Carter County received $1.33 million to bolster K-12 teacher salaries as part of the teacher equity pay plan.
   The county negotiated an agreement with the county school system appropriating the new dollars to teachers based on three levels of experience. Teachers with 9 years or less experience would receive $2,207, teachers with 10 to 19 years get $2,700, and those with more than 20 years in the classroom receive $3,207.
   With more than 550 teachers and nearly 1,000 total employees, the school system ranks as the county's largest employer in both the public and private sectors. Carter County teachers rank among the lowest paid of any school district in the state. Culler said the union had mailed ballots to the association's 262 members on Sunday.
   One county teacher who spoke on the condition of anonymity said years of low pay had effectively translated to low morale among many of the system's teachers.
   "We get no respect," she said. "It makes us feel like our efforts aren't worth as much." She also indicated many teachers avoided speaking out about low salaries because of political reprisals and the fear of being transferred to a county school well away from their home district.
   Heaton said once the equity pay stream was factored into the salary scale, teachers would enjoy a higher level of pay because the equity pay negotiations could be taken up with the county.
   "We will get a percentage increase on that rather than the with the equity money," Heaton told attendees. "That makes the county (responsible) for every penny we get in raises from then on."
   The county school system employs roughly 550 teachers. The county's system-wide teacher's salary average for the 2001-2002 school year was $33,900, according to the Tennessee Department of Education. The county's existing contract with the school administration runs through 2004.
   Culler said she had received approximately 20 ballots through Thursday. Only a handful of county teachers showed up at the meeting. Deadline for voting on the agreement is June 20. The results are expected to be presented at the next county board of education meeting on June 23.
   Bredesen's proposal sought to bring all Tennessee school systems to an average salary of $37,000. In all, more than 17,000 teachers in 75 school districts will see their salaries increase. Of those school districts, only Hawkins County, at $1.5 million, received more equity pay under the plan than Carter County. Neighboring districts of Johnson County and Unicoi County received $383,000 and $321,000, respectively.
   The county commission has included the required matching funds of 6 percent -- roughly $77,000 -- in their 2004 fiscal year budget.
   The county school system was one of several small school systems that joined a lawsuit against the state of Tennessee calling for equal pay for teachers in the state's most rural school districts. The decision followed weeks of work representatives from the Tennessee School Systems for Equity (plaintiffs in the Small Schools III lawsuit), the Tennessee Education Association, State Board of Education, the Department of Education, the Comptroller's Office, and others.
   Citing the anemic attendance at the meeting, teachers and union reps said the best way to address issues important to educators is to get more county teachers involved.
   "We need more teachers to help us," said Culler.
   Average teachers' salaries for
   Tennessee K-12 school systems
   County Educators Teachers
   CARTER $33,341 $32,411
   HAWKINS $33,698 $32,504
   GREENE $35,022 $33,378
   HANCOCK $34,714 $33,253
   JOHNSON $34,467 $33,285
   SULLIVAN $38,710 $37,256
   UNICOI $34,956 $33,630
   WASHINGTON $38,050 $36,770
   STATE AVG. $40,260 $38,515
   Source: Tenn. Department of Education
   Annual Statistical Report 2001-2002