President's Message

The Classroom Teacher, spring 2015

by Terrill Q. Littlejohn, 2014-15 TCTA state president

When the Legislature is in town, everyone tends to pay attention to what’s going on in Austin. It becomes the focus for policy discussions and arguments and for the kind of political maneuvers that make it hard to avert your eyes from a session. 

Certainly this session is high stakes for public education, with everything from the accountability system, including testing, to basic teacher rights and benefits like the state minimum salary schedule under discussion. Some of these issues are up front and out in the open – like the bill to base accountability ratings on the performance of black male students only or the bill to eliminate the minimum salary schedule. Others are more subtle, like the bills revising systems of governance that could also result in major changes.

In Texas we are in a period of strong local control. All kinds of governmental bodies, from cities to schools to the state itself when it comes to federal mandates, are demanding it. Part of it may be backlash from federal mandates, like the Affordable Care Act. Part of it is simply the belief that the best decisions are made closest to the source.

State, districts focus on budgets

But it’s important to remember that even though the legislature is likely to make some changes that will have an impact on our schools and classrooms, local districts still have a lot of local control. The state minimum salary schedule is a great example. Very few school districts pay the state minimum. So why would we fight so hard to defend it? Part of the reason is because it’s symbolic of the state’s commitment to teachers as professionals, with the not unreasonable expectation that salaries will rise over time. I also hate to think of what would happen to the teachers in those districts that still do pay the state minimum if it were eliminated or reduced.

Legislative years are always difficult for school districts because they don’t really know how much money to expect from the state until close to the end of session (which ends June 1). The budget is usually one of the last bills to be adopted, since so much other legislation working its way through the process can have an impact on the budget. The budget is the only bill the Legislature is required to pass, so it is also a good target for either the House or Senate to hold hostage in order to get another important bill passed.

But districts are already beginning to think about the budgets they will pass this summer. And no matter how much or how little additional funding your district ultimately gets from the state, the decision on whether you get a pay raise and how much will likely be made locally. There is not much appetite right now at the Capitol for mandating across-the-board pay raises, but an influx of state money would give districts some room in the budget to talk about compensation.

So if you haven’t been paying attention to the actions of your local school board, now is a good time to do so. It is also a good time for local associations to talk with the superintendent about what he or she plans to recommend regarding compensation. Will there be a raise? Will the district increase its contribution to health insurance funding? You are likely to be told that it’s too early to tell, without knowing how much money to expect from the state. That’s true, but you can also ask what the superintendent plans to propose, finances permitting. Since personnel costs are the biggest item by far in school district budgets, that item gets discussed and decided fairly early in the budget process.

Board work sessions on the budget are also a great opportunity to find out what’s under consideration. They can be as dull and tedious as watching paint dry, but they are also where a lot of the action is. Again, local associations and members can encourage their school boards to consider improved compensation, especially after that long recession. We have all watched a great teacher move to a neighboring district or take an administrative position to get a raise. If you want to attract and keep the best people, it is important that the salaries and benefits you offer be competitive.

Make an impact on your area

As board elections take place, you should listen to the candidates’ views on public education to learn which candidates are most supportive of teachers. School board elections traditionally have very low voter turnout, so a committed group of educators who get out and vote can have an impact.

Our lobby team is busier than a one-eyed cat watching two mouse holes, doing all they can to improve working conditions for you and learning conditions for your students, and to deflect and defeat proposals that will be harmful to either. But in the more than 1,000 school districts throughout the state, important decisions will also be made locally and your efforts can make a difference. As the late former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously (and ungrammatically) said, “All politics is local.” He might not have passed the STAAR exams, but he knew his politics.

Terrill Q. Littlejohn
2014-15 TCTA President