Bill boosting teacher pay worries rural schools

Bill boosting teacher pay worries rural schools

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois General Assembly will cripple downstate school districts if it passes a bill that would eventually set a minimum salary of $40,000 a year for teachers, Mahomet-Seymour Superintendent Lindsey Hall says.

If it becomes law, Senate Bill 2892, introduced by state Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), would — over the next four school years — steadily increase the minimum salary for teachers, starting at $32,076 in 2019-20.

It would grow to $34,576 for the 2020-21 school year, $37,076 for 2021-22 and reach $40,000 for 2022-23. That's including any amount paid by the school district on behalf of the teacher to the Teacher's Retirement System.

The bill passed the Senate on a 37-16 vote on May 17, and is currently being debated in the House. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's office could not be reached for comment on the proposal.

State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Westchester), the bill's co-sponsor, said it is meant to address the state's teacher shortage and raise interest for people to go into the profession. To Hall's point, Lightford said the phase-in provision will give districts "ample opportunity to prepare themselves" for the higher minimum salary.

And she emphasized the importance of legislation like this.

"We're not able to attract new people or young people to the profession," she said. "And, really, it's just the right thing to do. We're acknowledging that teachers are grossly underpaid and doing something about it. If we don't keep up with other states, we're wiping out a profession that's desperately needed."

But around East Central Illinois, Hall and other superintendents say they are frustrated with the bill.

Hall said the problem with the idea is that it will take away local control from school boards. They're already struggling as it is, she said, so "to layer on an unfunded mandate on top of that" would be problematic for many downstate districts.

"I understand the thought behind it," Hall said. "But then like many pieces of legislation, there comes a time when you have to look at how it will roll out in the individual school districts.

"Especially the more downstate you go, and the more rural you get, you find districts that are under-resourced for this."

'All these new mandates'

Local school districts already pay teachers an amount close to what the bill would set up, including Hall's, which pays a teacher with a bachelor's degree and no experience almost $39,000 a year. Champaign's Unit 4 pays above that at $43,423. And Urbana and Rantoul City Schools are less than $2,000 away, at $38,178 and $38,696 respectively.

If the bill becomes law, the three districts wouldn't need to make any salary changes until the 2022-23 school year.

But the Prairieview-Ogden district, which pays new teachers about $5,000 below the bill's minimum, would have to give teachers a raise in the 2021-22 school year.

Superintendent Vic White said it "without a doubt" is an encroachment from the state government, also calling it an "unfunded mandate."

"My little district is only getting 2,000 new dollars under the new state aid payments," he said. "That would easily disappear. They give us new money, but take it away with all these new mandates."

But some believe a conversation around a base teacher salary has been overdue for decades, with the current minimum requirement passed in 1980 set at $9,000 a year.

However, most school districts in the state base their pay on collective-bargaining agreements, not on a legislated minimum, the way 17 other states do.

Hall: Plenty elsewhere to fix

Urbana Superintendent Don Owen said he understands that with the national conversation focused on teacher pay — notably, statewide teachers' strikes demanding raises in West Virginia and Oklahoma — the legislature had to do something.

"But I mean in the context of Illinois, it's completely different than the national dialogue," he said. "It's been one of these things that's been on the books that no one knew or cared about. It's low-hanging fruit for the General Assembly."

Owen acknowledged that the minimum would not be a problem for Urbana schools, but criticized that the Assembly hasn't set aside more money to help smaller, more rural districts pay for the proposed raises.

"It almost mandates a local tax increase to cover it," Owen said, adding that it continues many school districts' "over-reliance" on local property taxes.

Lawmakers' idea, though, is that by setting a minimum salary for teachers, school districts would give raises to teachers who need it — and it may keep recent education graduates from leaving the state to find a job.

But Hall said that's a bad argument.

"It does not in my opinion fully embrace and recognize all the other problems in the state that are causing teachers to leave," Hall said. "The pension crisis. The fact that if you are a Tier 2 teacher in TRS, you are required to work until you're 67. The fact that on an annual basis, there's so much strife and struggle to pass a state budget.

"Those are the factors making people leave."

Superintendent compensation

Owen said he was irritated with the bill in the larger scope of education funding in the state.

"It's frustrating to see that we're not continuing to have real meaningful conversations after last year's funding formula reform," he said. "I thought that would be the first step to more reforms.

"And now we're back on to things that aren't going to have as direct an impact on the funding, and would actually have a negative impact on it."

Lightford decried some of the superintendents' objections to the bill.

"I would think as a superintendent that I would want a happy workforce and not one struggling to make their own ends meet," she said.

"And I would also say to them — who make four or five times more than teachers — that they should be mindful of the fact they make four or five times more than a teacher in the classroom who are teaching on a daily basis."