Charleston County teachers are now two years behind on their regularly scheduled pay raises. Patrick Hayes, a fourth-grade teacher at Drayton Hall Elementary School, will travel to Columbia on Wednesday to fight for the payment he was promised when he started working for the school district six years ago.
"I was shown a piece of paper when I took this job that showed how much money I was going to make in 2012, and I made my plans around that," Hayes says. While state legislators hash out the budget for the fiscal year that begins in July, Hayes still has a mortgage to pay. In the spring of 2010, as Charleston County schools forced teachers to take unpaid furlough days and the state legislature debated whether to cancel its requirement for the "step increases," as the annual raises have been called, Hayes was about to become the father of a baby girl. To plug a hole in the family budget, he took on two extra jobs, working as an in-home tutor and helping to organize a summer camp at the school.
Hayes posted a petition to signon.org in early February titled "Restore Teacher Salaries," and so far it has gotten nearly 6,900 signatures. On Wednesday, he will pay a visit to the State House's first-floor rotunda alongside House Minority Leader Harry Ott, a Calhoun County Democrat. The two will make a presentation about the need not only to restore step increases, but to pay teachers for the two years' worth of missed increases. "My goal is to have it be the kind of event that legislators will hear about whether they were there or not," Hayes says.
Ordinarily, all school districts are required to pay their teachers according to a the State Minimum Salary Schedule, a table that dictates baseline salaries for teachers according to their credentials and guarantees a pay raise for every additional year of experience up to 22 years. That schedule is usually revised every year, but in 2009, a proviso in the tightened budget froze the schedule at 2008-2009 levels, and it has not been changed since. Then, in 2010, the state legislature voted to allow school districts to opt out of offering yearly pay increases to teachers. A similar bill passed in 2011. In all, 17 of the state's 83 school districts suspended step pay for both the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years. The House Ways and Means Committee has proposed restoring step increases for the 2012-2013 school year, but it has not addressed the issue of missed back pay.
Charleston County was one of the districts that suspended the pay raises two years in a row, and Superintendent Nancy McGinley has vowed to push the school board to restore the step increases and repay teachers for the two missed years. She has estimated that the first-year cost of restoring the teachers' pay would be about $12.2 million.
But the decision will ultimately be the school board's, and it will be influenced by the amount of funding that comes from the state. According to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, South Carolina decreased its inflation-adjusted spending per student by 24.1 percent in the fiscal years from 2008 to 2012 — the biggest cut for any state in the country.
Meanwhile, S.C. government is running a $913 million surplus due to Great Recession spending cuts, but Gov. Nikki Haley wants to cut education funding by almost $80 million. Haley has proposed a school budget that would increase recurring spending while excluding anything that was funded by one-time money in the 2011-2012 budget.
More bad news for the step increases: Mick Zais, who in January 2011 became the first Republican state superintendent of education in 12 years, has said that he favors a pay-for-performance system for teachers and superintendents.
As the state's minimum salary schedule stands today, a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree (for instance) can expect to earn at least $28,943, although Charleston County has opted for a higher starting point of $33,740. Salaries would ordinarily increase for each year of experience, usually by anywhere from 1 to 3 percent. Hayes, who has been teaching for 16 years but is only being paid for having 14 years' experience, says he is owed about 1,100 for each of the two years that Charleston County has halted step increases. "It's almost embarrassing the amount we're looking for here," he says. "It's embarrassing that we have to go out and fight for this."
Hayes previously taught in California, which allows teachers to join unions. In South Carolina, teachers are barred from collective bargaining. "With the salary, the tradition is I just sit back and wait and see what they hand me," he says.