SMYRNA, Ga. - Declining teacher morale and rising turnover can be remedied by a pay raise, better benefits and a little respect, the leader of the state's second-largest teacher organization said Monday.
Ever since the string of yearly 6 percent pay increases ended and Gov. Roy Barnes started talking about problems in public education, teachers have been feeling bad about their jobs, said Ralph Noble, president of the Georgia Association of Educators.
"We believe the general public respects us for what we do, but that is not reflected in the political rhetoric we hear every day," Mr. Noble said. "Our elected leaders need to help, not hurt, our profession."
The help the association is calling for would come in the form of a 10 percent across-the-board pay raise costing an estimated $350 million to $500 million. Plus, the state would pay for dental, life and vision coverage; the step increases in the salary formula would be more generous; and teachers would be able to retire with three-quarters of their working paycheck after 30 years' service under the group's proposal.
Currently, teachers with that much time on the job draw only 60 percent of their highest salary.
Association officials say the Teachers Retirement System already has so much cash there would be essentially no cost for the increased pensions. They said they couldn't estimate the price of the other benefits.
Association officials point to teacher departures because of low morale as aggravating an existing shortage in Georgia classrooms. The Department of Education estimates there were 900 teacher vacancies on the first day of school this fall.
GAE staff estimates 7,000 people lost their jobs as a result of education reform legislation, 5,500 of them classroom aides.
Although there are some teacher vacancies, most jobs eliminated locally were for paraprofessionals, not teachers.
Columbia County's school system eliminated 59 of its approximately 250 paraprofessional positions when it hired teachers to lower its third-grade class sizes. The Education Reform Act does not allow schools to use paraprofessionals to lower class sizes, giving school systems four years to comply.
Superintendent Tommy Price said no other positions in Columbia County were eliminated because of education reform.
"It really added more - it added more teachers, more counselors, nurses," Mr. Price said. "The only positions I can think of that were affected negatively were parapros."
Richmond County school officials who could provide information regarding teaching assistants were unavailable Monday, but Richmond County Superintendent Charles Larke has stated the district would eventually like to eliminate teaching assistants, hire more teachers and lower class sizes.
With so many jobs unfilled, the state should be enhancing pay and benefits to make teaching an appealing career, Mr. Noble said.
"It is time to act now before the any-warm-body syndrome infects us in Georgia," he said.
Mr. Noble, who teaches fifth-graders in Whitfield County, met with reporters to present the group's plan. Immediately before that, he presented it to the personnel committee of Mr. Barnes' Education Reform Commission, but the governor's appointees were cool to the ideas.
Mr. Noble told the committee he would cut no part of the state's education budget to fund his proposal but would instead bring in new money, effectively calling for a tax increase.
Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 589-8424.