Response to vote to table HB67 (tiered teacher salaries)

Many of you have written to me expressing your concern re: my vote to table HB 67, the tiered teacher salaries bill (click here to see the bill itself).  I know this is an issue that means a great deal to many people in our community, and I’d like to briefly share with you my reasoning for voting to table it on the House floor, as well as why I’ll be voting in favor of HB391, the resubmitted version.

I strongly believe — and have always believed — that raising teacher salaries needs  to be a big part of improving our schools here in New Mexico.  Whether we like it or not, we live in a culture where salary = prestige and respect, and one of the very best ways to attract and keep the best teachers in our schools is to make sure they are paid in line with the importance of the work they do.  Our teachers, students and communities deserve nothing less.

As a citizen legislator, my very first priority is to represent the people’s interest in the legislature.  What I’m not and have never been is a partisan — I don’t believe that every bill Democrats write is good any more than that every bill the Republicans write is bad.  My responsibility is to the people of my community, not to the Democratic Party, and as such, you have my word that I will always vote on how good the bill is for the people, regardless of political pressure.

Given this, I had some serious concerns about HB67, which is why I voted to table it until I could meet with the sponsor and address those concerns.

It’s difficult, I think, in our hyper-partisan times, because there’s so much game playing that goes on on both sides of the aisle under the guise of “procedure.” Oftentimes, as you know, when politicians vote to “table” a bill, they’re really voting to kill it without really killing it — so it’s understandable that you’d think that’s what I was doing.  But since I’m a citizen legislator and not a partisan politician, I vote to table things for the reason tabling was originally intended — when I need more information before making a decision that’s right for our community.

The frenetic pace and structure of the legislature means that unless a bill is heard in my committee, the first time I usually get to see legislation is before the vote on the House floor — oftentimes, only minutes before the vote. That’s obviously not an ideal situation, and it’s often not nearly enough time to vette it thoroughly and address any concerns, particularly with an important bill like HB67.  In this case, I had concerns that HB67 was in fact doing harm to teachers, and I needed time to talk with the sponsor and do some research before supporting it.  Over the weekend, while the bill was tabled, my staff and I worked hard to get the answers we needed, both from the bill’s sponsors and from teachers like yourself,  the vast majority of whom have indicated that support for this bill.

More specifically, here are the two concerns I have re: this approach to teacher pay raises:

Concern #1:

The first concern I had with HB67 was that there was no guarantee in the bill that the funds would be available to our school districts to be able to afford these salary increases, and that passing the bill would put many local districts, particularly more vulnerable smaller and poorer ones, into the no-win situation of not having the money to make good on the commitments the legislature made on their behalf — that faced with limited funds and no means to pay the increased salaries, the districts could be forced to increase class sizes and lay off good teachers to avoid being in violation of the law.

SOLUTION:  In order to protect our smaller and more vulnerable school districts from financial hardship, the plan will be to pass a waiver in the legislature that stops implementation of the salary increase if the state does not have the money to fund it.  This isn’t an ideal solution, but it at least prevents our most vulnerable districts from being forced into a financial commitment they can’t pay.

NOTE:  Some of you have emailed asking about funding this initiative through a change in the distribution of the Land Grant Permanent Fund.  I am aware of this as a viable possibility that’s definitely worth exploring.  If you’d like to talk through the specifics of how this might work, I’d be happy to share the analysis with anyone who’s interested.  You can, as always, reach me at my direct line — 505-699-6690505-699-6690.

Concern #2:

The second concern I have with this salary structure is that it risks undermining teacher seniority, and sets up a potential situation where a teacher who has taught for only a handful of years could end up making the same salary as a teacher with 20 years of experience.

Let’s take two teachers as an example:

 A New Teacher who has just started in tier II and currently makes $40,000, and a 20-year Teacher who has been a tier II for many years and currently makes $48,000.

 New Teacher moves up $2000.00 per year  in salary, reaching  $48,000 a year in four years.  while the 20-year Teacher has potentially not had a pay raise for four years . 

 In year five, both New Teacher and 20-Year Teacher 2 are now moved up to the $50,000 salary, even though 20-Year Teacher has invested far more time, skill and resources into their career than New Teacher has.

In general, my understanding from what I’ve heard from teachers and education advocates in my community is that most believe the traditional seniority system is the most fair way to pay teachers.  HB67 has the potential to undermine that seniority.  I doubt many seasoned teachers will feel good about having a relatively new teacher make the same amount of someone who’s put 20 years into their profession.

SOLUTION:  Candidly, after talking with the sponsor of HB67, Rep, Mimi Stewart, I still have this concern.  I think 20 years of teaching experience and commitment ought to count for something when it comes to salary.  There are avenues by which a more seasoned teacher can step their salary up into the $60,000 range, but those avenues for advancement are not ideal and are often cost prohibitive, as many have pointed out.  But there is at least the possibility of seniority not being entirely undermined, and most of the teachers I’ve heard from have indicated they’d rather have the imperfect HB67 than nothing at all, which sounds reasonable to me!

In short, this is not a perfect bill .. there are very few of those to be had on any issue, but I believe in light of the revised strategy, it is a “good enough” bill that does what we very much need to do and that is do everything possible to pay our teachers more.  We should not sacrifice the good in pursuit of the perfect, as the saying goes.

I hope that as we move forward, you’ll share with me any ideas you might have on how we could adjust this salary structure so that it more fairly rewards teachers who have given a lifetime of service to their profession.

Sincerely,

Rep. Carl Trujillo
Citizen Legislator

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