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Can state raise teacher pay and balance the budget?

By DARREL RADFORD - dradford@thecouriertimes.com

The U.S. Department of Education said that in Indiana, inflation-adjusted teacher pay has fallen since the 1999-2000 school year to the point where teachers now earn almost 16 percent less than they did two decades ago.

All three of Henry County’s Statehouse contingent want to change that. But it’s not as easy as the stroke of a pen.

Teacher pay was one of the issues discussed at length during Friday’s Third House legislative forum, sponsored by the New Castle-Henry County Chamber of Commerce.

Veteran State Rep. Tom Saunders (R-Lewisville) said at the same time he hears cries for higher teacher pay, Hoosiers also expect a balanced budget.

“There was a 5 percent teacher pay raise proposed, and I voted against it – not because I was against giving teachers a pay raise, but the voters voted in the last election that we have a balanced budget,” Saunders said. “So if we start picking and choosing on the amendments, we are going to mess up the balance budget we’ll be passing to the Senate.”

And the amendments to the proposed budget came by the dozens.

“The budget has 43 proposed amendments to it,” Saunders said. “There were over three hours of testimony. All of the amendments were proposed by Democrats. There were some very decent amendments proposed to us, but if we had approved any of those or all of those, it would have been $1.6 billion in new spending.”

Saunders emphasized, however, good news may still come for Indiana teachers.

“The governor proposed we pay the teachers retirement premium for the next biennium, which in New Castle alone, would give the school corporation $184,000 in uncommitted revenue that they could use to give teachers pay raises – which we as legislators think that’s what they ought to do because that money would have been used to fund their retirement,” Saunders said. 

Meanwhile, fingers are crossed for good news in the state revenue forecast, due to arrive in April.

“If the forecast is better, there’s every opportunity and goodwill to give the teachers a pay raise,” Saunders said.

State Sen. Jean Leising (R-Oldenburg) echoed similar sentiments about the balancing act between teacher pay and the budget.

“The majority of you said ‘cut my taxes,’” Leising said. “No. 2 was public education.”

New State Sen. Mike Gaskill reminded everyone that Indiana’s commitment to education was among the strongest in the nation already.

“About 53 percent of that state budget is for K-12 education. That ranks Indiana third in the country. So we have a strong commitment for providing funding for K-12 education. Unfortunately what sometimes happens – and I’ve been a school board member, I’ve seen this – the money is not always spent as wisely as maybe it should be. Unfortunately, teacher salaries are set by the local schools, so they have a role to play.

“I think we as legislators have to make sure adequate funding is coming to each of the school districts but then that’s where the school board members take over and they have to set priorities within their own school corporations.”