House Budget Chair: Teacher Pay Raises Are Probably Off the Table

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A push to increase Oklahoma’s teacher pay appears dead in the water for a second year in a row because of an expected larger budget shortfall, a key legislator indicated Monday.

Rep. Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville, chairman of the Budget and Appropriations Committee, said Oklahoma teachers need to be paid more, but the financial resources are not likely to be available when the Legislature convenes in 2016.

Sears said it’s too early to know how much lawmakers will have to make up in the fiscal 2017 budget. Some have said the state could face a shortfall of as much as $1 billion, due in part to declining oil prices and a reduction in the income tax rate.

Education Superintendent Joy Hofmeister’s 2015 election platform included a plan to raise teacher pay by $5,000 over five years while adding five days to the school calendar. That plan hit a wall in the Legislature this year because of a $611 million shortfall.

“I’m well aware of her (Hofmeister’s) plan, and I know its something she’s been very supportive of,” Sears said. “Depending on the hole, this is probably not the year that would be a proposal that would move.”

Phil Bacharach, a spokesman for Hofmeister’s office, said the superintendent will continue to push her plan as schools deal with a teacher shortage and larger class sizes.

“Certainly the superintendent recognizes the significant budget challenges facing the State of Oklahoma,” Bacharach said, “but the teacher shortage and crisis in education are not going away.”

Bacharach did not say how Hofmeister will promote her plan.

The Legislature spared common education from cuts in the fiscal 2016 budget while most other programs were reduced. Most of the shortfall was filled with one-time funding.

Sears said it’s too early to say whether education will face a cut in the 2017 budget. Lawmakers hope to have a better picture of the state’s financial situation in November.

“Education remains a priority and we are going to do everything we can to keep education as a top priority,” Sears said.

Oklahoma has not increased its base teacher pay since 2008.

The state has the lowest average pay in the region and the fourth lowest pay in the nation, according to the most recent data from the National Education Association.

That report found the average salary was $44,549, including benefits, during the 2013-2014 school year.