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Teachers hoping for pay raise

By Greg Gelpi

The legislative session hasn't opened, yet teachers and teacher organizations aren't hopeful about pay raises.

The Georgia General Assembly approved no pay raise in the 2003 session and a 2 percent pay raise in the 2004 session, which isn't supposed to go into effect until Saturday, halfway through the fiscal year.

The Clayton County school system spread the raise over the whole year, so local teachers have already begun receiving the raise, school spokeswoman Camille Barbee Olmstead said.

Still, teachers are feeling the economic crunch.

"In real terms, I'm worse off than I was last year," said Alphus Spears, 40, a Mundy's Mill High School teacher with 19 years of experience.

Spears said that inflation and the cost of living have outpaced the state's pay raises, so that he has more money this year, but can't buy as much.

Spears said he has no hope for pay raises in the 2005 session, since for the first time since Reconstruction, the state has a Republican governor and Republican control of both legislative houses.

Sid Chapman, the president of the Clayton County Education Association, said he intends to work with the legislature, but acknowledged weak economic conditions.

"It's kind of tight economic times, tight budget times, but they always seem to find money for things they want," Chapman said. "I think we would like to see a 6 percent increase. Anything is possible, but it's not probable. We certainly need a cost of living increase. We're certainly due one."

Along with teachers, he said that paraprofessionals and other support staff are in need of raises.

"I have some news that (Gov. Sonny Perdue) is going to give raises, but you never know," Clayton County schools Superintendent Barbara Pulliam said.

The sentiment is shared by State Rep. Mike Barnes, D-Hampton.

"I don't think he'll block it, but who knows," Barnes, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, said. "He's surprised me before."

Perdue has yet to detail his agenda for the upcoming legislative session, but a Perdue spokesman said education will be at the top of his list.

The legislature will have to find some way to approve a teacher pay raise, Barnes said. Teachers are "certainly making less" because of increases in insurance costs.

Merchuria Chase Williams, president of the 40,000-member Georgia Association of Educators, the parent organization of CCEA, said teachers' share of their state health insurance bills increased 20 percent last year and are expected to go up another 15 percent to 20 percent this year.

The increases more than offset the 2 percent pay raises, Williams said, calling the need for another pay raise a "crisis."

Barnes said the pay raise has support from both sides of the aisle and didn't fail in the past because of a lack of support, but for lack of money.

The economy is turning around, but still has a way to go, he said, adding that a 3-percent raise may be considered.

Teachers have long been a constituency that state politicians have courted. The state's roughly 100,000 public school teachers were considered key to Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue's election in 2002 when many, disenchanted with then Gov. Roy Barnes, swung to Perdue's side and brought friends and family along with them.

Since then, teachers say, times have been tough.

"They've been patient," said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the 60,000-member Professional Association of Georgia Educators, saying teachers understand a poor economy has hurt the state. "I think they've granted sort of a grace period on that. But I think the grace period could be coming to an end."

A teacher with no experience and a four-year degree earns $29,649 plus a $4,800 annual local supplement in Clayton County.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.