Laura King gives test instructions during class at West Bolivar High School Monday, October 29, 2018

The Legislature did not appropriate enough money to provide an annual $1,500 pay raise to all public school teachers in Mississippi due to an apparent administrative error, various sources have told Mississippi Today.

Last week Gov. Phil Bryant signed a $1,500 pay raise for teachers and assistant teachers into law, but a mistake in the way certain types of teachers are coded in an information system means there are not enough state funds to provide the raise for certain types of teachers. This leaves already underfunded local districts on the hook.

Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, said the shortfall could be as much as $12 million.

“This is a really big deal,” Hughes said.

Mississippi Today obtained a letter sent to House and Senate education chairmen Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach and Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford. In it, a Mississippi Department of Education official wrote that the Legislature asked the department to calculate the cost of the $1,500 raise for each teacher. The department did this using the Mississippi Student Information System, which tracks teachers by category. Their calculation did not include certain types of teachers, like gifted learning, special education and others.

As a result, “the MDE determined that 31,157.51 Full Time Equivalent” teachers qualify for the raise which would cost the state more than $58.4 million, the letter said. Those teachers are defined as classroom teachers, assistant teachers, librarians, counselors and other certified educators and staff who work directly with students, the letter said.

A spokesperson for Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said in a statement to Mississippi Today “If this letter is found to have inaccurate information, the Lieutenant Governor will support a deficit appropriation at the beginning of the 2020 session.”

Reeves is running for governor and will not be the lieutenant governor during the 2020 legislative session.

“Our intent was to give the pay raise to everyone who qualified,” Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, R-Clinton said in a statement. “We will look into this issue and do whatever we need to do.”

Bennett and Tollison did not respond when Mississippi Today reached out for a comment.

Late in the session, legislative leaders were looking for ways to provide a raise larger than the $1,000 that they originally thought they were going to provide for teachers. There was an apparent mistake that some teachers would be paid with federal funds when in reality they were not.

The teachers not included in the pay raise are in the fields of career technical education, special education, gifted classes and a certain group of teacher assistants.

The issue has surfaced against the backdrop that many teachers have expressed disappointment that they are not receiving a larger raise to get them closer to the Southeastern average and some have discussed striking.

In addition, the Legislature has again underfunded public schools by more than $200 million in the formula to provide state funding for the basics to operated local school districts.

Hughes said unless the Legislature calls a special session to fix the mistake, local school districts would have to come up with the money to provide the pay raise.

“The taxpayers of Mississippi should not have to fund a special session because of a mistake made by the Mississippi Department of Education. MDE should identify any other funds that can be used to pay for the raises not accounted for in the original funding, and the Legislature can refund that source through a deficit appropriation in January,” Bryant told the Clarion Ledger in a statement.

Lee County School District superintendent Jimmy Weeks said state funds were not provided for about 125 certified teachers and 40 assistant teachers in his district.

“I hope this was a miscommunication… and the Legislature takes whatever action is needed to cover the cost of the raise,” Weeks said. “If they don’t do that, it will be a big lick to local school districts.”

He estimated it would cost his district $310,000 annually to cover the raise.

Interim superintendent in the Coahoma County School District Ilean Richards said she was notified about some teachers being left out of the raise.

“(Our teachers) won’t be left out even if the district has to pick up the supplement,” she said. “I can’t speak for anyone else but I can speak for Coahoma County School District.”

Dennis Dupree, superintendent of the Clarksdale Municipal School District, checked to see if those individuals were left out, and they were.

“They are not included and it’s so messed up. … It’s not funded how the Legislature said the money will be distributed,” he said.

Dupree mentioned that some of the teachers raises did not equal to $1500, some ranged between $300 and $900.

“It’s just ridiculous and all over the place … a district like ours, we’re not capable of picking up those salaries. There’s no way we will be able to do that. I’m sure they’ll say these are one of those funded mandates with no funds, but there’s no way we can do it.”

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, the Mississippi Department of Education said there were teachers who were eligible for the raise who were incorrectly coded in the system but the department is “committed to ensuring that all teachers and teacher assistants receive their pay raises in the 2019-20 school year.”

“The MDE appreciates districts bringing this issue to our attention and we will work swiftly with each district to verify the number of MAEP-funded teachers and teacher assistants,” the department said. “We will provide this information to lawmakers and work with them to obtain the additional funding for the pay raise.”

Contributing: Aallyah Wright

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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.

Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.