By Trent Moore
The Cullman Times
Local educators favor a push by Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley to institute pay raises for teachers this year, though they worry the tenuous state budget might not be able to support the extra pay — which could result in cuts down the line.
Bentley recommended the legislature provide raises to education workers, expand Alabama’s pre-kindergarten program, and address complaints of sexual abuse at the state prison for women.
The plan does not provide a raise to state employees and require most agencies to get by next year on the same amount they are getting this year. That includes the Medicaid program, which is the largest appropriation in the state General Fund budget.
Bentley’s proposed education budget would boost spending in the new fiscal year starting Oct. 1 by $277 million, or 5 percent, to $5.82 billion. His proposed General Fund budget for non-education programs would decrease spending nearly $5 million, or 0.2 percent, to $1.74 billion.
Bentley said Alabama’s economy has picked up, generating more income and sales taxes for education, which allowed him to offer school teacher and school support workers the first raise of his administration.
Cullman County Board of Education Superintendent Billy Coleman said he was pleased to hear the governor supports pay raises for the education field.
“First off, I’m certainly very supportive of any type of raise for the employees,” he said. “They do a great job and haven’t had one in a long time. They’ve actually lost money the last couple of years, as a result of higher percentages going into insurance and retirement.”
Coleman said the one concern he harbors is that the state might approve the raises, then not have the funds in the long-term to support it. If that happens, he worries it could lead to proration and state budget cuts.
“You have to make sure you can sustain what you do, because I understand the concept that if you can’t sustain it, it comes back to proration,” he said. “We have to see exactly how the economy is going, but I’m supportive of the raise. I hope it works out, but in the end it comes down to the numbers. I just hope the numbers enable it. Statistics show sales tax up across the state, so maybe it will keep trending up and getting better.”
Considering the several year delay since the last round of teacher raises, Cullman City Schools Superintendent Dr. Jan Harris said she also favors the governor’s proposal.
“Teachers have not had any raises since 2008, so I think it’d be great for the teachers to have a raise,” she said. “They’ve also been cut through increases to retirement. It’s timely and I think that’d be great. Absolutely well deserved.”
House budget committee Chairman Jay Love, R-Montgomery, told the Associated Press the Legislature would likely approve the governor’s pay raise recommendation after making sure the state will have the money to pay for the raise in future years.
Democratic Rep. Thad McClammy of Montgomery said proposing a raise for only educators was “a little like cutting the baby in half,” and state employees deserve an increase.
Bentley’s plan increases funding for pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds by $12.5 million, or 65 percent, to $31.6 million. Alabama’s pre-k program has been ranked as one of the country’s best, but one of the smallest. The program currently serves 3,900 students, or about 6 percent of Alabama’s 4-year-olds. The budget increase would allow 2,000 more students to enroll.
Mike Luce, co-chair of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance’s Pre-K Task Force, called the increase “the first step in a multi-year effort to give all of Alabama’s 4-year-olds an opportunity to attend the nation’s best pre-k program.”
The proposal drew praise from Democratic and Republican leaders in the Legislature, who predicted it will pass with ease.
* Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.