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Saturday, February 1, 2003

Educators Applaud Governor's Call for 6% Pay Hike

By Susan Montoya Bryan
The Associated Press
    BELEN Chris Peralta's face lights up as he picks up two framed photographs from his desk and shows off the smiles of his three young children and his wife.
    What the photos don't show is how hard Peralta works to provide for his family. The 33-year-old Belen High School history and health teacher earns extra money by tutoring after school.
    "In society, in general, you have to have two incomes to survive," Peralta said.
    Peralta, who has been teaching for seven years, is not alone.
    Many teachers work after school or on weekends to supplement their incomes tutoring, giving music lessons, coaching or working at a department store.
    A recent study by the National Education Association ranked New Mexico 44th in teacher pay last school year. The study shows New Mexico lags behind Arizona, Colorado and Texas despite a 7.9 percent increase in average pay over the last two years.
    The average teacher salary around the state about $36,440 a year is thousands less than what teachers in the neighboring states earn.
    Gov. Bill Richardson wants to change that. He's pushing for a 6 percent pay increase for teachers.
    The obstacle: money. New Mexico lawmakers are trying to balance slim revenues and skyrocketing Medicaid costs with the governor's wish for higher teacher salaries, more education spending and lower personal income taxes.
    Richardson proposes paying for the teacher raise by requiring school districts to shift 5 percent of their overall budgets to teachers' salaries and classroom expenditures.
    "No one applauds the efforts to give teachers more money than I do," said Clayton Superintendent Jack Wiley. "But to just expect the districts to come up with the money on their own, I find that offensive."
    The Clayton district is suffering a decline in enrollment and would have to cut programs or staff if it had to come up with the money to pay for the proposed raise, he said.
    Clovis Superintendent Neil Nuttall said he wishes it were easy to find extra money.
    "I think I would find it very surprising if you were to visit with any superintendent who had additional revenue and was not already allocating it to staff pay," he said. "We know the value of increasing teacher salaries."
    Superintendents around the state say it's important to boost wages for New Mexico to attract and keep quality teachers.
    Pat Graff, who teaches English and history at La Cueva High School in Albuquerque, earns extra money working two nights a week at a homework assistance hot line and conducting journalism workshops during the summer. She said a boost in teacher pay would help ease her concern of there not being a qualified teacher to take her place when she retires.
    "My concern is the fact that we're losing so many people," said Graff, 47. "There are young people, people who we train and who we mentor as student teachers. They realize they're never going to pay off the bills and they leave."
    Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, said a pay increase as well as a three-level licensing system pending in the 2003 session would make New Mexico more attractive to teachers.
    The competency-based licensing system would establish a $30,000 base salary for entry-level teachers, $40,000 for second-level teachers and $50,000 for top-level or master teachers.
    School districts currently negotiate teacher salaries, which can range from $26,000 for new teachers to $30,000 for a teacher with several years experience and a master's degree.
    The proposed system "not only changes how much teachers are paid but how teachers are paid," Bernstein said. "It creates a more professional compensation system."
    Art Liberatore, who has taught for nearly 25 years, said being a teacher means more than just standing in front of students and presenting a lesson.
    "In a lot of cases, we become sort of like a substitute parent, brother, uncle or counselor when the kids have problems," said Liberatore, who teaches special education at Albuquerque's Del Norte High School.
    "It's a big job," said Jean Shope, who teaches language arts at Grant Middle School and moonlights with Albuquerque's Dial-A-Teacher homework hot line.
    Teachers are challenged daily with taking usually boring information, tailoring it to each student and making it exciting, she said. Meeting the challenge means spending time off the clock preparing lessons and grading papers.