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Former Mississippi state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. listened to educational concerns from DeSoto County teachers during a Town Hall held in Southaven Wednesday afternoon. Waller is among three candidates seeking the Republican nomination for governor in the August primary.  

As state education officials and legislative leaders try to determine what went wrong when it was discovered not all state public school teachers and others were not part of a $1,500 pay raise for next year passed in this year’s lawmaking session, a candidate for governor came to DeSoto County this week to hear their concerns and solutions to improving the plight of Mississippi’s teachers. 

Bill Waller Jr., the former state Supreme Court Chief Justice who is running against Hernando Republican state Rep. Robert Foster and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves for the party’s nomination for governor in the August primary, held a town hall with educators at the Lost Pizza Co. in Southaven Wednesday afternoon.

About 20 people, made up of primarily DeSoto County teachers, came to hear Waller address education issues as they explained their situation. Much of what was talked about involved their heavy workload for what they consider is still not at a cost-of-living wage.

“We need to offer a larger salary,” said one teacher who said her husband is also a teacher, while another said, “You do it because you love it, but you’d like to be paid more for it.”

Legislators struggled with teacher salaries during the last session and settled on a one-time $1,500 raise of state funds for next school year.

However, it was later determined that the submitted number of eligible teachers and teacher assistants to be paid the raise did not cover all of the state’s instructors due to a coding error at the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) administrative level. As a result, teachers in career-technical education, special education, and other non-MAEP programs would not be covered.

MDE announced Wednesday it was working with all of the school districts in Mississippi to verify the number of MAEP-funded teachers and teacher assistants to update the cost of the teacher pay raise. It hoped to have the updated figure by the middle of this month.

“Let me be clear, all teachers and teacher assistants will receive their well-deserved pay raise,” said Dr. Carey Wright, state superintendent of education. “State-funded teachers will receive their raise with state funds. Federally funded teachers will receive their raise with their district’s federal funds.”

DeSoto County Schools Supt. Cory Uselton, head of Mississippi’s largest public school district, has already come out and said all of the district’s teachers and teacher assistants would be bumped up in salary next year by $1,500, but the total cost difference is about $1 million between the total figure needed to cover the raises and what the state initially will provide.

DCS will cover the difference, Uselton said, but he is aware some budgetary adjustments will need to be made to do that until the state comes up with the difference, so the district can cover the cost for now until the state reimburses it.

In Southaven Wednesday, Waller said if elected governor, he would get a special appropriation passed to cover the difference. He also hoped there would a special session called to address the issue.

“We are going to pay our teachers, but of course my commitment is not just the $1,500 that they did this year, but we’re going to have some kind of raise, not sure how much it is going to be, but we’re going to have a raise for teachers every year until get up to the Southeastern average,” Waller said. “I’m going to make sure our teachers are paid.”

Some of the teachers at Wednesday meeting said the difference between DeSoto County and Shelby County Schools in Memphis, for instance, can range up to $10,000 annually.

On average, according to MDE figures, Mississippi public school teachers make on average $44,659 while the average teacher in the Southeast makes just shy of $51,000 annually.

According to a report in Mississippi Today, Lt. Gov. Reeves and current Gov. Phil Bryant both essentially said a deficit appropriation by the Legislature during the next session, starting in January, would address the problem.

Foster, in the same article, added, “Better long term planning and prioritization of our budget can prevent this issue in the future. This is the perfect example of why we need a governor with a business background rather than a career politician.”

Attorney General Jim Hood, running for governor on the Democratic side, also said he would make teacher salaries a top priority if he were elected governor.

Another issue brought up during Wednesday's meeting involved the time spent on testing for state accountability, which one teacher said could take up to five weeks out of a 36-week school year, time the teacher said could better be used in instruction, adding many times teachers are teaching just for the test.

It was pointed out during the meeting that 38 states use only ACT scores instead a state accountability testing program.

Bob Bakken is Managing Editor for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.

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