Sunday, May 1, 2016

Change is in the Air

It's that time of year again! The flowers are beginning to bloom, the grass needs to be cut, and my seasonal allergies are going haywire. It can only mean one thing: springtime. It's so easy this time of year to become distracted by the beautiful spring days and lose focus on what's happening right under our pollen-covered noses.
I learned at the most recent county commission meeting that there is currently a projected $900,000 budget shortfall that will cut into our $2.7 million balance. This budget shortfall does not include additional money that will be requested by the county schools for necessary budget items, such as purchasing new school buses, which is required by law, and finally giving the teachers in this county a much-needed and way overdue cost-of-living raise. It’s been at least a decade.
First, to the county teachers who say that we haven't had a raise in over 10 years, it's important that we are more accurate in our narrative. Teachers with 24 years of experience or less still receive step increases every year for experience and advanced degrees; so, technically, we receive raises. What the county commissioners and the general public need to understand is that these minuscule salary increases don't even come close to the rising cost of inflation--especially if a teacher has to use student loans to obtain the advanced degree and increase in salary.
I'm sure there are people reading this article who disagree with county teachers getting a raise. After all, when the going gets tough, we just need to “tighten our belts” and make due with what we have, right? Here's why a cost-of-living raise for teachers is absolutely essential: The public education system is a service provided by the county government, and you get what you pay for. “Tightening your belt” on a public service leads to a lower quality service. In this case, a poorly-funded education system leads to an even larger inmate population at our new jail. Great teachers are already leaving #TeamCoffee to take positions in nearby systems who pay substantially more money. Not only will this trend continue, but it's difficult to attract good teachers to replace them when they're comparatively not paid very well.
The numbers completely back this up. According to school board member Pat Barton, Coffee County Schools ranks 57th in the state in teacher pay, which puts us slightly above average across a state that ranks 39th nationally in this category. Using median salary, the following middle Tennessee systems pay their teachers more money than us (in order): Davidson County, Murfreesboro City, Franklin Special School District, Manchester City, Lebanon Special School District, Rutherford County, Montgomery County, Hamilton County, Tullahoma City, Fayetteville City, Dickson County, Bedford County, Sumner County, Williamson County, Marshall County, Putnam County, Warren County, and Maury County. That’s 18 school systems within approximately one hour of us. In fact, there are only seven middle Tennessee systems with a lower median teacher salary than Coffee County.
Of the systems listed above, only one--Davidson County--has higher property taxes than us. The county commissions of these other school systems have found a way to pay their teachers more money without a property tax increase. It definitely helps that NONE of them are supporting three independent school systems and a brand new jail that is already in disarray and is being mismanaged, costing taxpayers more money by the day. 
It’s easy to pay lip service and say “I support public education,” but it’s an entirely different thing to actually do it. Supporting public education looks like voters being allowed to choose if Manchester City Schools should consolidate with Coffee County Schools. Supporting public education looks like county commissioners taking action to put teachers first so that we can retain and attract the state’s best teachers because our children deserve it. Supporting public education looks like teachers standing up for themselves and the students they serve every day by filling the room at every county commission meeting because they realize that it’s better to be proactive on the front end than to keep getting it handed to us on the back end. In this season of growth and rebirth, it's time for the spirit of change to grow as plentiful as the pollen in the springtime air.

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