Texas attorney general says school districts must allot money for teacher 'step' raises

Texas school districts must pay teachers their regular "step" increases for experience, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said Tuesday in a legal opinion.

Many districts across the state, squeezed by budget shortfalls, have been waiting for the opinion to know whether they have to include the salary increases for the upcoming school year. Some that have already adopted budgets with pay freezes will have to make revisions and come up with the extra cash.

That includes Grapevine-Colleyville, where trustees approved a $143 million budget last week with no raises. The estimated $350,000 for the increases will add to the district's $2.8 million budget deficit, officials said. The district plans to cover it by drawing more money from savings.

Teacher groups welcomed the news.

Larry West, regional manager for the United Educators Association, had been urging districts to increase teacher pay.

"Districts who want to recruit and retain teachers need to implement more than the step," West said. "Districts who only included the step will fall behind other districts."

Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott sought the opinion in late January to clarify questions related to a teacher pay raise approved by the Texas Legislature in its last session. Pay raises of at least $80 per month for the 2009-10 school year were provided to teachers, counselors, librarians, nurses and speech pathologists.

The raise had to be in addition to the regular "step" increase employees in the target group would receive for experience under a school district's salary schedule.

For the upcoming school year, Abbott's opinion says districts that had a salary schedule in place in 2008-09 are required to pay educators the amount the employee would have expected to be paid under that year's plan.

The attorney general's office does not comment on opinions once they are issued, a spokesman said.

Most school districts have implemented or made budget plans to cover the step increases, said Joy Baskin, director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards.

Baskin noted that while the state provided funding for the mandatory pay raises in the bill, legislators did not include money for the incremental raises based on experience.

"From a funding perspective, this was underfunded," Baskin said. "We always appreciate the idea of compensating employees. This is a lean time for school districts."

Some districts, including Keller and Fort Worth, anticipated that the ruling would require a salary hike and included pay increases in the fiscal 2010-11 budget despite multimillion-dollar budget shortfalls.

That turned out to be the right call, West said. "This is what UEA anticipated he would do," he said.

Birdville's school board approved a $162.9 million budget without pay raises last week but agreed to revisit the issue at a meeting in late July. District officials are awaiting updated information on property tax revenue. Without the salary hikes, the Birdville budget includes a $985,431 shortfall for fiscal 2010-11 in the general operating fund. Raises would be funded from district reserves, officials have said.

Arlington school officials have said that adding step increases to the 2010-11 budget would cost an extra $2.4 million.

JESSAMY BROWN, 817-390-7326