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Bill to raise teacher salaries hits dead end, but Oklahoma lawmakers mull other ways to increase school employee pay

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OKLAHOMA CITY — A bill to raise Oklahoma teachers’ salaries for a second year in a row is dead, but other wage-boosting measures are still advancing at the state Capitol.

Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, said his bill to increase teacher salaries by $1,500 to $3,000 would cost more than his education funding subcommittee had to spend. A fiscal impact study of Senate Bill 1313 found it would add $143.56 million in recurring expenses each year.

For that reason, the “bill did not progress,” Pugh said at a Wednesday meeting with the Senate Appropriations Committee. The legislation failed to meet a committee vote deadline last month and wasn’t included in the appropriations committee’s budget plan last week.

The state Legislature spent $286 million last year to raise salaries for all teachers in the state. The raises ranged from $3,000 to $6,000, depending on years of experience.

Another measure could pay certain teachers an extra $35,000.

House Bill 4017, the “Return to Teach Signing Bonus Act,” would pay annual bonuses of $7,000 for five years. Teachers with at least three years of experience who have been out of public schools for five years would qualify. They would have to pledge to return to the classroom for at least five more years.

The bill passed a bipartisan House vote 79-16. It now advances to the Senate, where Pugh is the chamber’s author.

Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, said he co-wrote HB 4017 with Rep. Rhonda Baker, R-Yukon, to fix a “flawed” signing bonus program at the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

The state Education Department gave teachers $15,000 to $50,000 in signing bonuses if they agreed to move to Oklahoma or return to teaching in certain high-need areas.

The agency gave the full bonus amount upfront, raising concerns when it attempted to claw back tens of thousands of dollars from teachers it had paid in error.

State Superintendent Ryan Walters said the incorrect payments affected four teachers out of over 500 the program had recruited to Oklahoma schools, though his administration had previously informed news media that at least nine people received payments for which they didn’t qualify.

McBride’s bill would pay bonuses in annual installments and would require yearly reviews to ensure eligibility.

“The State Department of Education did wonderful work in recruiting more than 500 teachers to return to Oklahoma public school classrooms,” McBride said in a statement Friday. “But this legislation puts some safeguards in place to address some issues with the way the former bonus was crafted. This will protect these teachers going forward so they can still be rewarded for choosing to help our kids but without the fear that their bonus could be clawed back.”

Pugh also proposed giving a $2,500 stipend to all support staff employed by public schools. A Senate fiscal impact study found it would cost $99.67 million, he said. Pugh initially had estimated it might cost about $85 million.

The Legislature never has directly set support staff wages, he said, unlike teachers whose minimum salaries are outlined in state law. However, Pugh said many support personnel — like classroom paraprofessionals, bus drivers and custodial workers — felt left out of last year’s $625 million increase to school funding and educator pay.

Districts had the option to use the added funds to increase support employee wages, but it wasn’t required.

Support employees would take home about $2,000 after taxes next school year, should the stipends be approved.

“I’m trying to balance not being in the salary business but wanting to recognize the hard work that those men and women have done,” Pugh said.

The Senate Appropriations Committee agreed last week to include the stipends in its overall budget recommendations.

It’s unclear whether the idea will gain traction in the House.

Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, didn’t indicate whether his Republican majority caucus would support the stipends or another across-the-board increase to teacher salaries.

“These proposals have not been presented to the House yet, but when they are, we will discuss as a Caucus how to proceed,” McCall said in a statement.

Nuria Martinez-Keel covers education for Oklahoma Voice. She worked in newspapers for six years, more than four of which she spent at The Oklahoman covering education and courts. Nuria is an Oklahoma State University graduate.