/‘We’re teachers too’ Community college faculty feel shortchanged by legislative raises

‘We’re teachers too’ Community college faculty feel shortchanged by legislative raises

Nonprofit Mississippi News. The Legislature allocated $11 million to Mississippi’s community colleges for faculty pay increases. However, some feel that it is not enough money to keep their salaries competitive with K-12 schools after the historic teacher raise. Due to a lack in state funding, Mississippi’s 15 community college have struggled for years to retain the best and brightest teachers. The 2007 law required that community colleges receive half of the funding the Legislature allocates to K-12 and regional universities. However, this has not happened. Some are now arguing that the historic pay increase for K-12 teachers and the modest amount lawmakers allocated for community college instructors means that many faculty could make more money teaching K-12. Thomas Huebner (Midland Community College president) said, “I want it to be very clear, I’m happy for the K-12 teachers.” It will impact our ability attract and retain community college instructors. However, the likelihood that a K-12 instructor will earn more will vary and there is not enough data to show how it could affect aggregate. The Mississippi Department of Education does not know how the pay increase will impact average teacher salaries. It can also be difficult to compare K-12 and community college teachers because they have different teaching areas and work for different lengths of time. Brandi Pickett, a Meridian Community College wellness instructor, could earn about $14,000 more if she returned to K-12. This is due to her experience and her status as a National Board Certified teacher. Pickett will remain in her current job, earning $49,500 per year. She is a community college graduate and enjoys teaching students like herself. Pickett knows of many community college professors, particularly those who teach science or history, that could be lured to K-12. Pickett asked, “Why is my salary not comparable to K-12?” Pickett said, “Why don’t people try… to give an incentive for those great teachers to stay and not move?” People can travel from my home to Alabama and teach. In March, the Legislature approved a $246 million teacher raise for K-12. This was the largest increase in state history. The average teacher in Mississippi earned $46,862 for the 2020-21 school years. However, that number will rise with the pay increase. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the average community college instructor earned $50,465 last school year. Initial requests by the presidents of the 15 Mississippi community colleges for $11 million to be appropriated for salaries were made by the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. This was enough to provide a 3% increase across the board for nearly 6,000 employees. Kell Smith, interim executive director of the Mississippi Community College Board, stated that they increased the request to $25,000,000 in January because of the rising cost of inflation and the historical amount K-12 teachers would likely receive. The Legislature did not change its original request. Mississippi’s community colleges are already struggling to retain faculty, particularly those in career-technical education. They can earn significantly more teaching than working in the trade. Huebner stated that MCC lost an instructor in its electric lineman program recently because it could not pay the same salary as the out-of-state industries. Huebner described the difficult task of finding a replacement as “unbelievable.” Community colleges cannot raise faculty salaries without sufficient state funding. Huebner stated that some colleges have advocated for higher property taxes or increased tuition to cover the budget gap. The latter option is more challenging for community colleges to meet their obligation. Chris Stevenson, a history teacher at Itawamba Community College, stated that they offer a “working class option” or entry into the higher education system. Stevenson jokes that he and his wife “took a vow to poverty” when they became teachers. He said, “It’s a labor that is more about love than it is a work of salary.” The Legislature tried to solve these budget woes in 2007 by passing the Mid-Level Funding Act. This was meant “to provide adequate financing for Mississippi’s junior and community colleges.” It would fund community colleges at a higher level than K-12 schools, but less than regional college. The bill was passed by the legislature. It would be used to gradually introduce mid-level funding over three years. The Great Recession struck. Smith stated that the Legislature has not funded community colleges at a middle-level level. Smith said that the community colleges stopped asking for it. MCCB now adjusts its budget priorities to fund formula increases, workforce programs and salary rises. Smith stated that mid-level funding was not something Smith had experienced much success with. “It seemed to be such a big ask.” MCCB estimates that the Legislature would need to allocate $159 million more to the community colleges system in order to fund mid-level funding. This includes $64 million to raise the salaries of community college instructors to a middle-point between university faculty and K-12 teachers. Jennifer Smith, Hinds Community College librarian, said that it makes us feel less important. “We are teachers, too, and feel like we’re not valued by government. We help develop the state by training people for work. Our state doesn’t reward us for helping the state.” Smith finishes cataloging books and then goes to her second job at a bakery making truffles. Smith said many of her colleagues work extra jobs such as tutoring students, teaching at nearby universities, custodial work or running Instacart and Doordash deliveries. Smith stated that without these jobs, it is impossible to afford to live. Last year, the Legislature provided enough funds to fund a 1% raise for community college workers. Pickett has taught nine years at MCC. She said that it was the first time she had ever seen legislators give community college employees an all-encompassing raise. Pickett is also the president of Mississippi Association of Community College Faculty. She said that she appreciates the amount of money legislators have given to give raises. Pickett hopes that lawmakers will one day show they are “ready to invest.” She said, “We have one the best (community college system) in the country.” “What would happen to us if we were no longer here? To the workforce?” To the large number of students who need community colleges.