HATTIESBURG – Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Waller Jr. visited with Pine Belt teachers for about two hours Wednesday afternoon to hear their concerns and take questions about how he would serve them as governor.

There are more than 31,000 full-time teachers in Mississippi. In recent weeks, many of them have taken to social media to express their displeasure with a recent $1,500 pay raise approved by the state Legislature last month and to discuss the possibility of a strike.

In a town hall inside the Movie Star Restaurant in Hattiesburg, Waller, former chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, told a crowded room of educators he was displeased with the raise amount and instead supported raising teacher pay to the Southeastern average. Waller is running for governor as a Republican. He faces Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and state Rep. Robert Foster, R-Hernando, in the primary.

“Education and workforce development is a priority,” Waller said. “I will say right now unequivocally, I was not happy with the election year pay raise of $1,500.”

The Southeastern average was about $51,000 in the 2015-16 school year according to the Southern Regional Education Board. In Mississippi, the average pay during the 2017-18 school year was $44,926. A first year teacher earned $34,390 without any district supplements.

Several educators spoke passionately at the event about the struggles that come with getting certified, their low pay, and the feeling that politicians and lawmakers just aren’t listening to them.

Veteran teacher Amee Piland, an eighth grade English teacher at Oak Grove Middle School in Hattiesburg, said she came to make sure her voice was heard.

“We desperately need money and I’ve heard other candidates here in our area say we can’t just throw money at the problem, but I’ve never seen money thrown at education in our state,” Piland, a 15-year educator said. “I would like very much to vote Republican. But at this point I feel like I’m willing to vote differently if there is not a candidate that’s willing to put education first as a priority.”

Waller assured the crowd that public education was a priority of his campaign.

“When I was making the decision to run, the issue of teacher pay raise came up and I felt like waiting for an election year was not good government and was not productive to having a quality professional teaching force,” Waller told Mississippi Today. “I said enough is enough, let’s work every year until we reach the Southeastern average.”

It is ultimately in the Legislature’s power to set and pass a pay raise, but Waller said he expected to have a good working relationship with that body if he becomes governor.

“It’s also the governor’s job to provide leadership and to set the goals,” he said. “I’m optimistic that we will be able to work together, the Legislature and the governor, to come up with good solutions for education.”

Teachers also asked the candidate where he stands on the issue of vouchers. Reeves, one of Waller’s Republican challengers, is a staunch proponent of the Education Scholarship Account program which uses public dollars to send special needs students to private school, and last month supported a move that added an additional $2 million to the program.

Waller said the program may be appropriate in parts of the state where families have no other option for special education, but “I think the bigger issue is where are we adequately funding education for special needs children?”

“The priority should be funding for special education needs because every child needs a chance,” Waller said. “I think the frustration is illustrated with the $2 million for private vouchers, but the bigger issue is a need to adequately fund special education across the state with public money.”

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.