Oklahoma democrat: Don’t count on teacher pay raises

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OKLAHOMA CITY - One of the state's leading democrats said teachers shouldn't expect pay raises this year, despite several proposals to increase wages.

House Minority Leader Scott Inman (D-Del City) said, for evidence, he looks back to better economic times.

"At that time, there was no offer by the governor or this republican legislature to give them a pay raise," he said. "Instead, they were offering budget cuts. But, now, the republican governor and legislature want us to believe that, when the price of oil is under $30 a barrel and there's a $1 billion budget hole, that now's the time to give teachers a pay raise? I think they know better."

Instead of public policy, Inman said republicans are playing election-year politics on the heels of losing two seats to democrats in long-held red districts.

Blaming tumbling oil prices, he said, is only part of the problem.

"My frustration with [republicans] is that they put us into this mess, and they refuse to accept responsibility for it and would rather play games with teachers' emotions in an election year," Inman said. "Until the republican majority and the governor actually want to get serious about tax reform instead of just raising taxes on teachers to pay for their own pay raise, I don't see this happening."

In fact, Inman doesn't see any pay raises coming for the next several years, until the oil economy rebounds - a statement that's drawn the ire of republicans in the legislature.

"I just am not going to lay down and say we're not going to do that this year," said Sen. David Holt (R-Oklahoma City), who authored a bill to raise teacher salaries by $10,000. "That's not what I've been sent to the capitol to do."

Holt maintains it's still early in the session and lawmakers are putting a priority on the raises, despite a billion dollar budget shortfall.

"I'm not going to let people tell us that we can't do it," he said. "That attitude is obviously going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Senate President Pro-Tempore Brian Bingman (R-Sapulpa) echoed that raises are a priority.

“In order to have the kind of school system we want, we need to find a way to increase teacher pay to a level that is competitive with surrounding states," Bingman said in a statement. "There is broad consensus in the Legislature that we need to find a way to achieve a teacher pay increase, and we will be carefully considering every plan to achieve this goal.”

One of the state's largest teachers' unions is once again hoping for a raise, but once again it isn't holding its breath.

"Many of our legislators in this state say that public education is their top priority, but they don't vote that way when it comes down to it," said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association. "It's dire straits for us."

Priest said she wasn't surprised to hear Inman's comments, adding, "I think he's basing his statements on reality."

The former Spanish teacher recalls years of rallying at the state capitol with nothing to show for it.

Meanwhile, Priest said, Oklahoma teachers are waiting for their first raise since 2008, finding it tougher and tougher to compete with starting salaries in neighboring states.

"It really is tough when we're putting our trust in teachers to educate the future," she said. "We are causing our teachers to either leave the profession or leave the state to feel they are valued."

There is another, non-legislative option on the table for raising salaries.

Volunteers are working to collect signatures for a proposal that would raise the sales tax to raise money for education.

If the group gains enough signatures, voters would have their say on the November ballot.