Teachers react as bill heads for governor

Last Wednesday, an Oak Grove Middle School math teacher was enjoying a sunny spring break day with two of her children, strolling through downtown Hattiesburg, looking for a place to lunch – a rare break for an educator working a second job to make ends meet.

The teacher, Dacia Fortenberry, hopes the biggest pay raise ever for teachers in Mississippi will ease the financial strain on her family.

Mississippi Teacher Compensation:Lawmakers pass largest teacher pay increase in state history

“I think it will personally affect me and a few other teachers I know that we hold down two jobs just to somehow have enough pay to support our families,” said Fortenberry. “So with that, it kind of allows some of us to give up that second job, and now that’s going to be enough to live comfortably.”

Dacia Fortenberry, a seventh-grade math teacher at Oak Grove Middle School, hopes Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves will sign a bill to raise teachers' salaries.  Hattiesburg, Mississippi, March 23, 2022.

Fortenberry was with Veronica Jones, also a math teacher at Oak Grove Middle School, and her children. Jones, a teacher for a decade, hopes the bill will stop teacher turnover.

The average annual salary increase will be approximately $5,100 and will begin with the 2022-2023 school year. The bill also includes a $2,000 salary increase for teaching assistants and annual step increases for teachers’ salaries.

Veronica Jones, a seventh-grade math teacher at Oak Grove Middle School, hopes Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves will sign a bill to raise teachers' salaries.

Mindi Cook, an American history teacher at Madison Central High School, said the increase makes teaching a viable option for those who don’t want to have a roommate to get by.

“You can’t teach for the money, and you certainly won’t stay for the money,” Cook said. “You have to want to teach and love teaching, otherwise it’s not worth it, but at least we have to attract and qualify great people to be able to move forward.”

The State House voted 118 to 4 to pass the $246 million increase last week, and it was sent to Governor Tate Reeves, who indicated he would sign it. The news came as a major victory for teachers after weeks of heated negotiations between the House and the Senate, during which the amount of the increase was increased from $210 million to $246 million.

The move demonstrates the commitment of Mississippi elected officials to invest in public education, said Lindsay Robertson, a teacher for 17 years in the Lamar County School District.

Robertson teaches United States history at Purvis High School, located just southwest of Hattiesburg, and helps coach the softball team.

“I have a daughter who goes to college,” Robertson said. “I have a son who is entering first year in high school, and this will be extra money to better meet his needs.”

Robertson said the raise will also help his colleagues financially, including some single mothers.

“I have quite a few co-workers who work a side job or two just to make ends meet for their families. … These teachers are not only doing these side jobs, but they are continually showing up for other people’s children on a daily basis” , Robertson said.

It’s no secret that many Mississippi teachers work second jobs. The state has long lagged its peers in teacher salaries. Mississippi’s 2019-20 teacher starting salary of $36,543 ranked 44th lowest in the nation.

Under the bill, entry-level teacher salaries will increase to about $41,600.

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Educators hope the bump will prevent young people from abandoning a teaching career due to low pay.

“I think my excitement comes more from the fact that people going into college will see teaching as a competitive career now and not give it up completely because they see it as something that doesn’t allow them to support a family,” said Skye Morgan, Petal High School Professor of United States History in Petal, just east of Hattiesburg.

George Stewart, a Spanish teacher at Whitten Middle School in Jackson, agreed.

A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and a native of Mississippi, Stewart said a colleague told her she was considering leaving the state before the bill passed the House.

“The starting salary, from what I see, is pretty comparable to our neighboring states, so that will absolutely help us recruit, especially those who are homegrown.”

DeSoto County School District Superintendent Cory Uselton hopes the increase will make teacher salaries more competitive with neighboring states and help retain Mississippi teachers.

Uselton said DeSoto County, located less than 20 miles from downtown Memphis, is considered a suburb of Memphis, but teacher salaries in Mississippi have not been competitive with teacher salaries across the country. Tennessee.

“And now that the Mississippi legislature has made that commitment, the salaries that are offered in Mississippi will now be much more competitive with Tennessee,” Uselton said.

The starting salary for a Memphis-Shelby County teacher is $43,000. For DeSoto County, the teacher’s starting salary will be about $46,500 after the raise.

“This is very exciting for our school district, and especially for our teachers. Ultimately, our students will also benefit from this pay increase.”

The benefit for students extends to opening up a sustainable career option for them in their home country.

Ben Austin, a world history and human geography teacher at Petal High School, noticed that his students were discouraged from studying to become teachers because of low pay. He hopes that the teacher salary increase will change that.

“I became a teacher because my teacher looked at me and said, ‘Well, you could be a history teacher.’ So if I can say that to one of my students and he doesn’t answer me saying ‘But what about the salary?’ … If they can say instead, ‘I would love to make a difference like you are making in my life,’” Austin said.

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Journalists Ross Reily and Gina Butkovich contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Laurel Thrailkill at [email protected] or on Twitter.

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