Hicks column: Charleston could lead the way on teacher pay

Students arrive at Mary Ford Elementary School on the first day of the school year Aug. 15, 2016. The Charleston County School District could soon start offering a higher pay scale to teachers who come to work at Mary Ford and 11 other high-need schools. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

We should have known this sort of weather was in the forecast when South Carolina started talking about raising teacher pay.

Most educators figured it would be a cold day somewhere far south of here before that ever happened. And it still may be, but at least some folks are trying.

The state Department of Education is working on a plan to recruit and retain teachers, mostly in the rural school districts where they’re needed most. There are nearly 500 vacant teaching positions across the state right now.

It’s particularly hard to find folks willing to work in poor, rural school districts. But nearly 10 percent of those vacancies are in Charleston County. That’s because the problem for teachers, ultimately, is largely universal.

None of them make enough money.

Sometime soon, Charleston schools Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait is expected to ask the school board to raise starting teacher salaries. As she said last fall, $36,000 isn’t enough for folks around here.

“I don’t believe I’ve talked to any first-year teacher who isn’t in a second-income home, who doesn’t have a second or a third job,” Postlewait said back in the fall.

Hopefully, the school board will listen because Postlewait is right. When a school teacher can’t afford the local rent, something is seriously wrong.

In addition to this weather.

A recent survey of teachers found that paltry pay was the reason so many of them quit.

The state has a new draft report on teacher recruitment and retention that says improving teacher pay should be the No. 1 priority to remain competitive and keep a competent teaching core.

Not to mention continuity in schools.

It shouldn’t be hard to improve salaries, seeing as how the average starting teacher in South Carolina makes less than $30,000 per annum. They could earn more money working in a day care, and probably deal with fewer kids.

Charleston County’s starting teacher pay is significantly higher than the state average, but then so is the rent. The average for a one-bedroom apartment here is $1,100 a month, which means young teachers have to pay at least 37 percent of their gross salary just to put a roof over their head.

Most lenders will tell you the safe ratio for housing costs is 30 percent … of take-home pay. So teachers are dealing with a seriously messed up situation.

Charleston schools officials say it would cost $20 million to raise starting salaries to $40,000. They expect to garner about $6 million in growth in the coming year. To fund the rest, some school board members say, would require some sort of tax increase.

And that is where the fun will begin.

Even though any tax the school district can levy would only affect car and business taxes, the board can expect significant blowback.

Funny thing is, most of it will come from people who criticize the quality of our schools the loudest.

Charleston could get some help from the state on this.

State Superintendent Molly Spearman is trying to get teachers at least a 2 percent raise this year, which would help defray some of the local district’s cost.

But it could turn out that Charleston actually leads the way on this. Getting lawmakers to set aside more money for teachers is going to be a trick, but Charleston has shamed the General Assembly before.

In 1918, when the state segregated schools by race, South Carolina only hired white teachers — even in the black schools. A group of Charleston educators, which included a young teacher named Septima Poinsette (soon to be Clark), petitioned the Legislature to hire black teachers for black schools in Charleston County.

Lawmakers actually listened, and before long South Carolina was hiring black teachers around the state. They weren’t paying them equally, but that’s a whole ‘nother story …

Charleston could set the example once again. And if lawmakers need another push, point out that many of the big industries they’ve recruited to the Lowcountry are quietly grumbling about the quality of workers they are getting these days.

That is a product of a broken education system that requires many fixes. But one of the obviously solutions is recruiting and retaining the best teachers possible.

As capitalists should know, you get what you pay for.

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