COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- Bringing South Carolina teachers' salaries back on track following several years of frozen salary schedules could cost $67 million, the state education agency reported Thursday.
Teachers' advocacy groups believe the state should make up for the lost increases. But state schools chief Mick Zais opposes such state intervention, saying any catch-ups should be locally funded.
"Districts requested the flexibility and districts made the choice. That's local control and with that comes consequences," his spokesman, Jay Ragley, told a legislative panel.
For the last two school years, legislators allowed school districts to suspend annual salary increases that state law otherwise requires teachers receive for each additional year in the classroom, through 22 years. Many districts managed to fund the increases through local taxes, exacerbating teachers' already inequitable salaries across the state.
Currently, teachers are paid based on their years in the classroom and their academic degree. Legislators set a minimum salary schedule that districts can't go below, but the vast majority of 85 districts offer more as they compete for teachers. Only three — rural Dillon 2, Dillon 4 and Barnwell 19 — pay the minimum.
After a three-year freeze in the state minimum, this year's budget was intended to provide all teachers raises of several percent.
A joint House and Senate committee on teacher salaries is supposed to make recommendations by Dec. 1 on issues including pay-for-performance models, step increases and salary schedules.
The $67 million figure involves only those districts that suspended the steps, and would boost their teachers' salaries to where they should be in 2013-14, Ragley said. That estimate could be high, he added, since some districts managed this school year to make up their missed steps.
While Zais advocates that teachers receive an additional step increase in the 2013-14 state budget, he thinks it's unfair to districts who managed to fund previous steps for the state to "go back and bail out those who didn't," Ragley said.
But Lyde Graham, secretary for the state Association of School Business Officials, said even districts that provided steps had to cut elsewhere, including mandatory furloughs that meant teachers didn't actually see the pay increase. In 2010-11, 18 of the 28 districts that provided step increases required teachers to take unpaid leave. That dropped to four out of 40 last school year, he said.
"All districts gave up something in order to make it work in the best interest of that individual district," said Graham, comptroller of Darlington County School District.
His group suggests boosting salaries of all teachers, regardless of whether their districts paid steps or not amid Great Recession budget cuts, with the first of a multi-year phase-in costing $60 million.
Kathy Maness of the Palmetto State Teachers Association said her group supported the salary freeze option but believes the state should catch teachers up as the economy improves, possibly over several years.
"It was a tool to save teachers' jobs," she said. "But it's important we get people back on a salary schedule."
Melanie Barton, director of the Education Oversight Committee, suggests a system overhaul instead. Rather than go back and try to catch teachers up, legislators should simplify how teachers are paid. The state's two main education funding sources no longer work together to fund salaries, she said.
She said it makes more sense to fund salaries based on a district's student population. If applied to current spending, spreading out the money that way would negatively impact 40 school districts by a total of $5.3 million, she said.
"The system is broken," Barton said. "How can we simplify this issue going forward — not looking back to correct disparity, because that's done."
Legislators agreed they need to explore alternative options.
"I don't know that there's any equitable way to get districts back in line under the old system, and I'm not sure we want to," said Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill.
House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham noted legislators will want to study Barton's charts to see how their districts would be affected, but said they probably need to "suck it up" to fix education funding.
"It's time to look at it holistically," said Bingham, R-Cayce. "No district is overly impacted, but we will have winners and losers any time we shift the formula."